Minors, Mental Health & the Media: In Response to "13 Reasons Why" (Pt 2)

In Part 1 of this blogpost, Rachel Osborn, a Therapist and Clinical Manager with the Mary's Center School Based Mental Health Program (SBMH), shared her thoughts on the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. In Part 2, she highlights common warning signs of suicide and gives some great advice for schools, parents and caregivers, young people and community members. 

The Mary’s Center School Based Mental Health (SBMH) program served nearly 700 young people and their families last school year with mental health services. The show can be appreciated as an opportunity to increase awareness and conversation and touch on the realities that youth often experience but rarely discuss. Several high school students I work with have voiced appreciation that the show was willing to take risks and project their realities on screen, affirming that though adults may sometimes be quick to write their problems off, that their experiences do matter. Many youth may connect with Hannah Baker and identify with parts of her story as their own. There’s little in the show that can’t be accessed within moments through a Google search, and presenting through a TV show is engaging and relevant. However, we must be responsive and responsible in discussing this with youth and ensuring they have adults in their own lives who are sending the same message – that they are seen, cared for, and that their stories matter. Youth suicide is preventable and it starts by creating connections.

A white paper issued by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) took the position that vulnerable youth, including those experiencing depression, social disconnection or any degree of suicidal ideation, not watch the series.  They also emphasize that if a young person chooses to watch the series, it is critical that a trusted, attuned adult be available to watch and/or discuss it with them. NASP also set forward guidance for educators and parents around the warning signs of teen suicide, which are summarized below along with some additional resources.

Common Warning Signs of Suicide

·         Depression is often correlated with suicide, but not always.

·         Talking about or referencing suicide. This may be direct (“I’m going to kill myself”) or indirect (“I want it all to end”) and done verbally, in writing, in artwork, over text, or through social media postings.

·         Giving away possessions, saying goodbyes to others, writing goodbye letters, and asking others what it would be like if they were gone.

·         Abrupt and extreme changes in demeanor, clothing, and appearance. This can include going from extremely depressed to happy and joyful

·         Note – not all youth feeling suicidal will display these behaviors, and just because a youth displays one of these behaviors doesn’t mean they are suicidal. When concerned, it is always best to break the silence and ask directly and/or refer them immediately to a mental health professional if needed. Never promise to keep a secret if it means jeopardizing their safety.

What can we do?

·         For schools: the single best prevention strategy is to cultivate safe, trusting relationships with adults. All school personnel should be able to identify and respond to suicide warning signs. Reinforce that mental health professionals are available and seek to make asking for emotional support as normal as asking for academic support. Students should also know where to go if they are concerned about a peer. For school communities that have been tragically impacted by student or staff suicide, know there are resources on how to respond and move forward.

·         For parents and caregivers: Make it routine to ask about your child’s emotional wellbeing. Stay informed of what media your child is exposed to. If they have watched 13 Reasons Why or similar media, have them watch it with a trusted adult or ensure they have a chance to share their reactions and questions. Normalize that it may make them uncomfortable, and that that’s okay. If you are ever concerned about your child’s emotional state, know where you can seek help in their school or in the community.

·         For youth: Know that in the show, Hannah Baker’s suicide was fictional and tragic. Suicide is a permanent response to a temporary problem and while problems eventually go away, suicide does not. You do not get to produce a show, decorate your locker, or create a hashtag after death. Though the counselor in the show was not responsive, most counselors are incredibly caring, trustworthy and non-judgmental. Do not hesitate to ask for help – and keep asking until you get the support you need.

·         For community members: Nobody is responsible for another individual’s suicide, a message that may have been convoluted in 13 Reasons Why. However, we all have a role in suicide prevention. Whether you are a healthcare provider, educator, police officer, family member, or interact with young people in any capacity: remember that individuals are often experiencing much more than can be seen surface, and that if you are ever concerned about anyone’s wellbeing – the best thing you can do is to simply reach out and ask, or connect them to someone who is comfortable doing so.


Resources for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis or experiencing suicide:

·         National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text "START" to 741741

·         DC Department of Behavioral Health Access Helpline 24/7 hotline: 1-888-7WEHELP  or 1-888-793-4357

·         If anyone is in imminent danger of hurting themselves or others, call 911.


Additional resources:

·         How to Talk to Your Child About Suicide

·         Suicide Prevention Toolkit for High Schools

·         Toolkit for School Communities After a Suicide


If you would like to connect with Mary’s Center Mental Health Services, please call 202-420-7122.

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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