Preventing Youth Suicide in Light of “13 Reasons Why”
The new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has created a lot of buzz recently around the topic of teen suicide. The show graphically chronicles a fictional teen’s suicide and, in many ways, glamorizes it.
Suicide among youth is a serious concern for everyone who engages with young people – whether at home, in school, or during out-of-school time. According to the Kids Count Alaska 2013-14 data book, suicides were the second-highest cause of deaths among youth ages 10-17. And in areas outside of Anchorage, the suicide rate among youth is four times higher.
Youth who are exposed to suicide or suicidal behaviors are more at-risk for attempting suicide, according to the American Association of Suicidology. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (ASFP) notes that risks of additional suicides increase when a story explicitly describes the method, uses graphic headlines or images, and glamorizes a death.
Seeing the graphic depictions and the sensationalized story of Hannah Baker brought to life in 13 Reasons Why has become a widespread concern among parents, as well as professionals in mental health, education and afterschool.
This type of glamorization has caused widespread copycat attempts, giving us more of a reason to talk about the reality of what is happening. Silence or ignoring the issue has never made it disappear. If anything, it has provided the right environment for it to grow out of control. ASFP states that we can prevent suicide by being aware and taking action – and that means talking about it.
- Watch 13 Reasons Why.
Rather than trying to get kids to avoid watching the series or talking about it — because they will, with or without permission — watch it so you are prepared to discuss the content when it comes up.
If you hear kids talking about the series, ask how they feel about the content. Watch how they’re reacting to the topic, paying close attention to their emotions.
- Watch for warning signs.
AFSP notes there’s no single cause for suicide, which most often occurs “when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition.” Conditions such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse problems increase the risk for suicide — especially when unaddressed. 13 Reasons Why depicts additional triggers, including sexual assault and bullying. Most people who die by suicide exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do. Find a list of warning signs from AFSP here.
- If a young person exhibits warning signs, talk to him or her about it.
“Be direct,” says Valencia Agnew, Ph.D. “Don’t be afraid to ask if they’ve thought about suicide, or if someone is hurting them.”
- Listen to young people – without judgment.
Get kids to tell their stories while they’re alive — not after they’ve made a permanent decision to what could be a temporary problem.
“Listen to children’s comments without judgment,” Agnew said. “Doing so requires that you fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said. Put your own agenda aside.”
If you have concerns, consider reaching out to prominent adults in the young person’s life that you trust. Ask the adults if they’ve noticed anything unusual.
- Validate young people’s feelings.
Feelings aren’t always facts, but never downplay a young person’s stress level or emotions. Instead, try to understand and show you care. “Avoid giving advice to fix it,” said Agnew. “Pain isn’t going to kill them. It’s what they do with the pain.”
- If needed, get help.
If a young person you know is having thoughts of suicide, reassure him or her that you’ll help —then act. It’s not expected that the typical afterschool professional or teacher has the knowledge and skills to handle this alone. Work with the school and other trusted adults to find local resources available for help. Suicide Awareness Voices of Education offers a number of resources and tools, and is a great place to start.
Afterschool hours continue at home. Share these guidelines for parents and guardians on suicide prevention, in light of the series. Together we can ensure our children live in a safe, stable and nurturing environment.