Minors, Mental Health & the Media: In Response to "13 Reasons Why" (Pt 1)

A new show on Netflix has teenagers fascinated and parents worried that it might push vulnerable young people to act on their suicidal thoughts. In this two-part blogpost, Rachel Osborn, a Therapist and Clinical Manager with the Mary's Center School Based Mental Health Program (SBMH), shares her thoughts on the controversial series and gives some common warning signs of suicide, as well as some helpful advice on how to talk to young people about the issue. 

"It helps raise awareness, we need more shows that reflect what it’s really like.” “It was really uncomfortable, I couldn’t even finish.” “It’s so addicting, I can’t stop watching it.” “It hit too close to home.”

These are all things I’ve heard from others, or even said myself, about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. The show narrates the story of 17-year old Hannah Baker, who has taken her own life and leaves behind audio recordings for 13 individuals she says contributed to her decision to kill herself. The show has brought together cross sections of people who may otherwise have nothing in common outside of having strong personal reactions to the show – including parents, educators, mental health experts, and adolescents themselves.

The purpose of this post is not to advocate for or against the show, but rather to guide you to consider what watching it (or not) might mean to you as a parent, educator, counselor, or concerned community member.  Many of us identify as helping professionals, educators, community members, family members, or people struggling with life stressors or more serious mental health challenges, and consumers of media - we typically juggle several of these roles. Regardless of the lens through which one approaches media, it is critical to be aware of the risks and benefits and recognize that no two individuals will be impacted equally by the same content. This is especially important with content relating to suicide which can be, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

The show graphically illustrates many of the issues our youth face on a daily basis, including bullying, substance abuse, sexual assault, depression, changes in peer groups, and the unrelenting pressure to feel accepted and fit in. Adolescents report that feeling isolated, misunderstood, and alone are not uncommon.

When someone’s head hurts or stomach aches even the youngest of children typically don’t hesitate to let someone know they are in distress and need help. Unfortunately, recognizing one’s need for mental health support and then seeking support remains taboo and stigmatized. Among the many factors that can inhibit youth asking for help include embarrassment, the perception that adults are too busy or disconnected to help, unsuccessful attempts to ask for help in the past, or simply not knowing where to go. While all youth have some degree of risk for suicide, factors that increase one’s risk include:

  • Social isolation
  • Minimal family support
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Having a  family member attempt or complete suicide, and
  • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others.

It is NOT accurate to say that viewing a show in which a young person dies by suicide will directly cause another young person to do the same. However, it IS accurate to say that much of youth culture and behavior is driven by media exposure, that youth often strongly identify with protagonists and may integrate that experience with their own, and that the more isolated or disconnected a young person is, the more vulnerable they may be to strong media influences. Tragically, the protagonist in 13 Reasons Why found what she and most adolescents most seek – recognition, concern, belonging - but felt suicide was her only means of doing so. It is essential that we reinforce the exact opposite message to each young person whose lives we touch: that they matter, that they are worthwhile, that things can get better, and that there are people who care. 

Click here to read Part 2 of this blogpost, in which Rachel highlights common warning signs of suicide and gives some great advice for schools, parents and caregivers, young people and community members. 

Rachel OsbornAbout Rachel Osborn

Rachel Osborn, LICSWMSW is a Mental Health Therapist who specializes in both child and adolescent mental health, along with school mental health.  She is also the School-Based Mental Health Clinical Manager, supporting adolescent programming. Through her work at Mary's Center, she strives to combine her love for youth health & wellness, strengthening families, and social change. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a Masters of Social Work from Catholic University of America. Ms. Osborn has lived and worked in Southeast Asia & Costa Rica, doing community development and youth empowerment. In her free time, Ms. Osborn enjoys running, hiking, playing with her dogs, live music and pottery.


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