Last month, Netflix released a series about a high school girl who dies by suicide. “13 Reasons Why,” originally a young adult novel by Jay Asher, tells the story of Hannah Baker. Before killing herself, Baker recorded 13 different tapes, each one explaining a reason she decided to take her own life. Her classmates receive the tapes after Hannah’s death and learn about her experiences with bullying, stalking, sexual assault and more.
The show has quickly become one of Netflix’s most popular series. Fizziology, a global social media research firm, reported that more people tweeted about “13 Reasons Why” during its first week of streaming that any other Netflix show — 3,585,110 tweets in total. That’s three times as many mentions as the second most-tweeted show and more than 20 times the tweets of popular shows “Orange is the New Black” and “Master of None.”
In short, if there’s a teen in your life with access to Netflix, he or she is probably watching or at least talking about “13 Reasons Why.”
While the show has been applauded by some for tackling the critical issue of teen suicide, many professionals in the mental health field were disturbed at how the series depicted Baker’s death. In an incredibly graphic scene, Baker deeply cuts both wrists while in the bathtub. Viewers watch her slowly lose consciousness; they also see Baker’s mom find her daughter’s body.
The much-talked about death scene brazenly ignores the American Association of Suicidology’s guidelines for how the media should safely and effectively discuss suicide. Experts in the field of suicide prevention — including people who survived their own attempts or lost a loved one to suicide — came together to say: This is the right way to address suicide in the media. The producers of “13 Reasons Why” responded with, no thanks, we’ve got our own ideas.
That’s irresponsible and could have devastating consequences for millions of teens binge-watching this show.
Even more serious, the same week that “13 Reasons Why” debuted, the public also learned about the death of Amy Bluel. Bluel was the founder of the Semicolon Project, a hugely popular suicide-prevention campaign. If you’ve ever seen someone with a semicolon tattoo — the idea being that a semicolon is used when an author could have chosen to end a sentence, but chose not to — Bluel was the reason. She started the mental health awareness campaign after losing her father to suicide; she had also attempted suicide several times.
Bluel was an especially important figure for teens and young adults struggling with suicidal thoughts. As a suicide attempt survivor, she delivered a powerful and passionate message: Don’t give up. You can get through this. It gets better.
Bluel died by suicide on March 24. Her death shook the suicide prevention community greatly. We lost a mighty advocate and incredible person. But even more important, young people who had been struggling to keep going lost their own model for recovery. Bluel’s death, combined with the graphic nature of “13 Reasons Why,” has many mental health professionals worried about the young people we know and love.
So parents of teens, I beg you: Talk to your kids about suicide. Talk to them about “13 Reasons Why.” Talk to them about Bluel’s life and death. Help them process the series’ graphic death scene and triggering topics. Ask them if they’ve ever had thoughts of harming themselves. Save the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s number in their phone. Get them help immediately if they indicate they’ve been feeling suicidal or are struggling with a mental health issue.
The Jed Foundation and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) have published a set of talking points that can help start your conversation. You can download them at www.jedfoundation.org/13-reasons-why-talking-points/.
Lauren Abdill, of Minneapolis, is a crisis counselor and master of social work student at the University of St. Thomas/St. Catherine University.