Talk to Your Kids About Suicide

    How Parents Can Start the Conversation

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    Talking about suicide saves lives. Comprehensive studies by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health have been conducted addressing that point alone. The results are irrefutable and worth repeating: Thoughtful conversation about suicide saves lives.

    Although it’s a topic that makes most people uncomfortable, it’s important to understand that talking about suicide does not give someone the idea to attempt it. However, it is widely believed by suicide prevention advocates and experts that romanticizing suicide is different, and it can be dangerous to vulnerable teenagers especially.

    How is Suicide Romanticized?

    You may not have heard of or watched the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, but odds are good that your teenage children or their friends have.

    According to the Parents Television Council, a non-partisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment, after the 2017 release of the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, the Google search for the phrase “how to commit suicide” spiked 26 percent. Mental wellness and suicide prevention advocates were alarmed by this response. Consequently, the May 2018 release of the second season of the popular show was monitored closely by stakeholders.

    From a personal perspective, it was not easy for me to watch either season of 13 Reasons Why. My own son, Charles, suffered from depression and addiction and killed himself three years ago at age twenty. However, as a suicide prevention advocate who speaks to teens about mental health and suicide, I knew it was important to watch all the episodes.

    Season one of 13 Reasons Why focuses mainly on the late Hannah Baker, a character who explains why she died by suicide to her high school peers using a collection of thirteen cassette tapes she left behind. Binge-watching this season was cited as a possible contributing factor to completed teen suicides. Watchdog groups broadly criticized the show for the graphic and gratuitous depiction of Hannah’s suicide, calling it “a serious trigger for an impressionable age group.”

    However, conversation and awareness about suicide also increased, more teenagers sought help for thoughts of suicide, or talked to a parent about the show’s content – all of which are positive outcomes.

    Season two of 13 Reasons Why follows established suicide prevention guidelines more closely. Each episode promotes the 13 Reasons Why resource website. Overall, the second season of 13 Reasons Why is a more enlightened script, although still very graphic. The plot addresses stigma, the characters recognize words and actions hurt, and we see teens being more compassionate toward each other. The characters attend support groups, seek the ear of a trusted adult when struggling, and access mental health services – all themes that were absent in season one. That’s important, given that mental illness is a contributing factor in 90 percent of all completed suicides.

    The second season of 13 Reasons Why is rated MA for mature audiences and explores themes such as sexual orientation, bullying, childhood trauma, rape, sexual assault, suicide, cutting, substance abuse, addiction, sexting, school shootings, prejudice, loneliness, self-esteem issues, teen pregnancy, and the unfairness of the criminal justice system.

    While 13 Reasons Why is a fictional drama, the social issues the show explores are real. Our culture has ignored mental and emotional health to the point that a perfect storm has been created: Problems flourish while opportunities for teens to learn coping skills to manage them have diminished, as we exist in an era of reduced interpersonal contact.

    The Problem Isn’t the Show – As Much As How It’s Watched 

    A concerned parent’s knee-jerk reaction may be to ban her teen from watching 13 Reasons Why. Instead, I would encourage parents to watch the series with their teen because it is a rare opportunity to engage in conversation on topics parents would otherwise find difficult to broach, or may not even know about. If your teen has already seen it, watch it now, and engage them in discussion as you move through the episodes.

    Binge-watching media, which is typical for today’s children and many adults, can be stressful. This show is graphic, dark, and thought-provoking. For a grieving mother like myself, three episodes in a row was too much. When you watch a show on Netflix, there are no commercials or breaks, and the episodes come one after another. Hour after hour of that can drag anyone down, and because this storyline is so intriguing, you have to intentionally pull away from it.

    To jump-start a discussion about the show, ask questions like: Do things like that happen at your school? Do you know someone who is cutting? If you were faced with one of these issues, how would you cope? Above all, try to listen more and lecture less. If you are watching with your teen, you can subtly set the limit with phrases like: I have to work tomorrow. This is very intense – can we stop here and watch again tomorrow night?

    If you know you have a vulnerable teen, limit viewing to one episode at a time and ask frequently if the content is too disturbing. If so, ask if he wants to stop watching. I recommend the show for thirteen and up, which might mean you watch it on a laptop with your adolescent instead of on the family room television where younger kids are present. If children do want to watch, and you say no, chances are, they’ll watch it behind your back.

    Try to embrace watching this show and other emotionally challenging and sensitive media as a learning and bonding opportunity. With all your kids, and younger adolescents especially, the topic of suicide should be discussed openly and in a nurturing, supportive environment.

    If you are in crisis, call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255

    According to a Child Trends survey, 18 percent of all high school students have considered suicide, and 90 percent of suicide attempts by teenagers are unknown to parents. These vulnerable teens often suffer from mental illness. They may be particularly empathetic and sensitive individuals or might be members of a high-risk population such as LGBTQ, have a disability such as dwarfism, autism, or stuttering, or have been exposed to early childhood trauma from sexual abuse, neglect, or bullying.