13 Reasons Why sparks controversy and conversation

illustrationThere's little doubt about why the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why struck a chord.

First, a younger audience latched onto it despite—or because of—a sensitive plotline centered on a teen’s suicide. Second, mental health professionals have issued warnings about the show’s take on suicide and revenge.

But in a world that decides upon lighting-rod type ideas in a black-and-white method, Carle psychologist Andrea Klein, PhD, focuses on the gray area regarding this show.

Yes, the content of the show is jarring. Yes, it in some ways sensationalizes or glorifies complex mental health issues. No, it isn’t valueless.

Rather, Dr. Klein believes, the value comes from the conversations it starts.

“My children are grown up, but I have discussed the show with some of my teenage clients,” she said. “It serves as a reminder that all parents should be asking about these sorts of topics. The willingness to talk about suicide is important, because almost everyone has some suicidal thoughts.”

But it's equally important for both children and families to feel certain of their outlets.

Most schools have trained counselors or social workers students can turn to if suicidal thoughts arise.

At Carle, people begin interacting with the Psychology department through three social workers. After an assessment, the social workers guide people to the most appropriate care possible.

If a teen is struggling with suicidal thoughts, parents can contact Carle child psychologists or psychotherapists directly at one of the three Carle branches—Curtis, Windsor or Kirby. Dr. Klein said some patients feel more comfortable contacting their primary care physician first for a referral.

Also, Carle’s psychology internship provides services, and a psychiatric residency is on track to begin this summer.

  • In the community, the Crisis Line (217-359-4141) and The Pavilion Behavioral Health System (373-1700) offer support.
  • People also can turn to hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).

Despite all that’s available, Dr. Klein’s emphasis remains, first and foremost, on an adolescent’s home.

She encourages parents, family members and guardians to know when or if a young member of the family begins to have suicidal thoughts by opening up discussions on that, as well as other important issues.

Dr. Klein said younger patients portray their pain in many different ways. If suicidal thoughts begin and children or teens become fixated on them, they might begin cutting, writing or drawing about it.

“When this occurs for a child, they don’t know what’s hit them,” she said. “So it’s the role of the parent to prepare them just like they would any other part of a young person’s life that is surprising. The more parents open up with their children before this occurs, the more the child can manage their emotions.”

Even though 13 Reasons Why can serve as a natural conversation starter, there are a few concerning aspects of the show, too.

First, Dr. Klein said the graphic suicide depicted doesn’t show the main character in that much pain. This might make the option seem more possible in the mind an impressionable viewer.

Also, the show’s premise hinges on 13 tapes delivered to various people who affected the main character’s decision to commit suicide. This, Dr. Klein said, portrays a troubling method of dealing with anger.

“In a sense this glorifies the character’s death and turns her into a martyr,” she said. “By showcasing revenge this way, it makes it seem that you can ultimately get back at people who hurt you. Rather than venting those types of negative emotions, we encourage people to work through those feelings and deal with anger directly.”

Regardless of the show’s influence, Dr. Klein asks families to step up and play an active role in their adolescent’s life.

Parents should check in regularly on important issues by consistently asking questions about and discussing drugs, alcohol, suicide, peer bullying and relationship drama.

While friends can be a good shoulder for teens to lean on, they often promise confidentiality. Parents should also remind their children that they need to identify when it’s OK to keep a secret and when it’s not OK.

“We need to tell our children that they are showing their friends the greatest amount of love possible by letting others know of serious issues,” Dr. Klein said. “And when we discuss such sensitive topics, the most important thing we can do, as adults, is to create an atmosphere of acceptance.

“If done right, this means you are helping both the friend and your teen find a better way to cope with the situation.”