Taking Action for the Family: Why you need to talk to teens about popular drama “13 Reasons Why”

TENNESSEE VALLEY, Ala. - You can try to ignore it, but it is not going away.

The Netflix show "13 Reasons Why" provides an unflinching view of teen suicide. It is becoming increasingly popular among middle and high school students, but it is also forcing families and educators to have crucial, albeit uncomfortable conversations.

The streaming site's most popular show tells the story of a high school girl who kills herself. She leaves behind audio tapes blaming others she said played a role.

It is based on the 2007 bestselling book by Jay Asher, which many said was a true game changer for young adult literature.

"No one had really touched on that subject of teen suicide in quite that way," said Monrovia Middle School Librarian Media Specialist Lexie Austin. "Jay Asher, when he wrote it said, you know, 'this book was about anti-bullying.' And he's absolutely right."

But its on-screen, and much more graphic, counterpart is getting mixed reviews. Alluring for teens, alarming for adults.

"I will say it was difficult to watch," said Arab High School Guidance Counselor Cindy Hammond. "It was hard to watch as a parent, it was hard to watch as an educator."

Real Issues, Not Real Solutions

So hard in fact, hundreds of school districts across the country are sending home letters warning families about the show's content, which includes sexual assault, underage drinking, depression and suicide contagion. Austin, who has read the book and watched the show, also shared her concerns about it.

Experts say "13 Reasons Why" can also be a trigger for vulnerable teens.

"I have had a couple of kids in the last one week, just because of the show they were watching, they said they felt like they wanted to self harm," said Dr. Aparna Vuppala.

She is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Huntsville. She said the show highlights real issues, but not real solutions.

"I have a problem with [it] because why are you committing self harm, why are you committing suicide, does not lead us to a healthy place," Dr. Vuppala said. "We need to talk about why not to, that will lead us to a healthy place."

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also access the Lifeline Crisis Chat any time. 

Catalyst for Conversation

Netflix said the show is meant to be a catalyst for conversation.

Those conversations are happening in places like Arab High School.

"I've had several students who have mentioned the show to me and how difficult later episodes were to watch," said Hammond. "I want students to feel open to talk about it and so maybe it would bring an issue that people feel like they cannot even say the word, so that we could discuss it in a manner so that they might learn more from that."

The conversations are also happening at Monrovia Middle School, where Austin teaches her students to be proactively kind.

"That's really what our kids need to learn from this," said Austin, "is not only to help themselves, but we need to be kinder."

Many teenagers are also interpreting the show as a lesson in empathy.

"Now I think twice about what I say to people, how I act towards them," said Arab High School junior Caleigh Kitchens. "Could this really hurt them?"

Kitchens and fellow Arab High School junior Allison Sweeney have both watched the show. Sweeney also read the book.

"I take it as it's trying to make people aware that you might feel as though you're lonely, but in reality you're not, you're just struggling with yourself," Sweeney said.

Some students are even creating their own "13 Reasons Why Not" campaign as a way to encourage and support their peers.

The show debuted on Netflix less than two months ago. It is already the most tweeted about series of 2017 and has been renewed for a second season set to debut next year.

"It's on Netflix, it's available, it's not going to go away," said Hammond.

Instead of trying to ignore it, many experts say to address the show directly.

"If your teen has watched it and you didn't realize what it was, everything is not lost, you can have some really good discussions about it and it will be okay," said Austin.

Dr. Vuppala added that it is not just important to have the conversation with you teenager, but how you have it that can make a true impact.

"I think if they sense that the parents are comfortable with it, then they'll come to you again and again," she said. "If they sense that, whether it be talking about suicide or whether it be talking about sex, whether it be talking about something else, they will sense that you're not comfortable and they may not come back to you. So, it's important to be comfortable."

She said that it is ultimately up to each family whether they choose to watch the show and how they respond to it.

"We want them to understand that there are adults that are caring adults in their lives that will want to help them," said Dr. Vuppala. "If one person doesn't, you need to continue to seek help with another adult and there is help for that. It's not as hopeless as it seems."

Austin noted in her analysis of the show that "we don’t just need to save the sweet lonely Hannah Bakers of the world, we need to save anyone we can."

"Kids need to ask for help," she said. "They need these adults in their lives. And it is natural development at that point to be pulling away from their parents, but that's why it's so important for them to have good adult role models. People like teachers, librarians, their ministers at church, their coaches in sports, you know, people that they can talk to and say 'hey, I'm struggling here, I need help.'"

Here are some resources to help you start the conversation with your loved ones about "13 Reasons Why":

WHNT News 19 and iHeartMedia are the media partners for this project, sponsored by the Huntsville Hospital Foundation. We are Taking Action to make sure people, especially children, in our community get the resources and help they need. Over the coming year, we'll be bringing you special reports and are committed to doing our part to end the stigma associated with suicide.