According to two teen mental health professionals, if parents are going to allow their teenagers to watch Netflix's drama "13 Reasons Why," parents should watch it with them — and make sure they are educated about the program before sitting down.
"I think there are still a lot of parents who are not sure what '13 Reasons Why' is and what it's talking about," said BJ Weller, director of Canyon School District Responsive Services. "They might think it's another one of those teenage TV shows, but they're talking about suicide."
The Netflix show is adapted from the young adult book by Jay Asher and focuses on 13 tapes that detail the reasons why teenager Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) took her life. When the show first aired in 2017, many parents and psychologists raised concerns that the show could possibly act as a trigger for teens struggling with suicidal thoughts, especially as the show portrayed Hannah's death in a graphic and detailed way.
Attempting to address the criticism, Netflix released a video before the second season started airing on May 18. Featuring cast members, the video advises viewers who may be dealing with "sexual assault, substance abuse" and suicidal thoughts to "reach out to a parent, a friend, a school counselor or an adult you trust (or) call a local helpline."
But despite Netflix's addition of the advisory video, Barbara Danner, a teen counselor at Aspen Ridge Counseling Center in West Jordan, is most concerned that the program doesn't address mental health issues.
"This show is not showing why people commit suicide," she said. "It's never going to be someone else's fault — it's (often) mental illness. This show doesn't talk anything about mental illness. It talks about (Hannah) having a God-awful life and then punishing everyone by this dramatic suicide. None of this is accurate. If someone commits suicide, it's pretty impulsive. (Very few) would plot and tape 13 tapes and orchestrate this elaborate thing if they were going to commit suicide. It's not realistic."
According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10-24, with those rates increasing, according to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention. In 2014, the American Association of Suicidology released a study stating that "depression is present in at least 50 percent of all suicides."
For Danner, leaving mental illness out of a TV program about suicide doesn't show the real story.
"We should always look at mental health first. … People who don't understand mental health think, 'These kids are terrors and they bully the kid to the point that he shot up the school,'" Danner said. "Now, a) every time someone is mean to someone they have license to go shoot a school up and b) nobody said anything about mental health."
Danner didn't simply offer a generic example. "13 Reasons Why's" second season finale details a graphic rape scene, followed by the victimized teenager showing up at his high school with guns to get his revenge. Not only does the scene depict a sensitive and controversial subject, but it sparked additional criticism as season two debuted on the same day a teenager shot and killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School in Texas. In response, Netflix canceled the premiere party planned for that day, according to the New York Times.
Danner believes a more effective way to portray suicide and bullying in the media would be to interview teens who have attempted suicide or who are victims or perpetrators of bullying. Once they have gone through treatment, it would be instructive for teens and adults to know about their thoughts during those difficult times.
"Nobody ever asks kids what's going on in their dark minds," Danner said. "Parents think they're just lazy and don't understand what they're feeling."
Weller hopes that if parents and students do watch "13 Reasons Why," the issues the show addresses will lead to healthy, open discussions, but he also wants to make sure they know what resources are available for those who may be struggling with mental illness issues or suicidal thoughts. Several weeks before the show's second season aired, the Canyons School District released a statement about where students can find help and shared guidance for parents and students from the National Association for School Psychologists on the program.
Weller said when the first season came out, the district saw an increase in students coming to talk to the counselors about the topics involved in the show. Since season two was released a week before the school year ended, the district wanted to get the word out quickly.
"We're trying to be proactive and provide as much preventative support as possible," he said.