In the Selena Gomez-produced Netflix series “Thirteen Reasons Why” — based on Jay Asher’s New York Times bestseller of the same name — young Hannah Baker has committed suicide, and the reasons why are contained in a series of cassette tapes she has mailed to her classmates.
While the show has received a substantial amount of acclaim, it has also generated controversy: The Australian mental service Headspace recently warned it may be dangerous for teens due to its portrayal of Hannah’s suicide. Meanwhile, viewers and critics alike have praised the program, which is rated MA15+, for raising awareness of the issue.
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All of that begs the question: Is the show harmful or helpful for teens? Experts say it depends.
“The media is doing us a favor by bringing these important issues to light,” Dr. Susan Lipkins, a school psychologist and CEO of Real Psychology, told Fox News. She noted that many contemporary programs, including “Thirteen Reasons Why,” are highlighting awareness about emotional problems and psychological issues, which helps stimulate conversation about these topics.
On the other hand, she noted that such programs also need to accurately show alternatives to suicide, and give viewers hope that they can turn to people they trust to deal with such issues. Bullying (like the type Hannah Baker endured) does not always lead to suicide: Lipkins noted that most often, those who commit suicide are suffering from some underlying psychiatric disorder that is triggered by environmental issues. TV programs need to take care not to oversimplify the case.
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And then there’s the element of contagion, David Palmiter, a psychology professor at Marywood University in Pennsylvania, told Fox News. In Palmiter’s experience, “when kids who are suffering from depression are thinking about suicide, certain portrayals make it more likely.”
Those media portrayals are ones where suicide is — often unintentionally — romanticized, Palmiter explained. For instance, the deceased teen in the program may receive a lot of affirmations about how important he or she is, which could send a signal to the mind of a depressed teen that there is something tragically poetic about suicide. That, in turn, could be the “little sliver of information that pushes someone in the wrong direction,” Palmiter said.
To avoid romanticizing suicide, programs have to characterize accurately how it feels to be depressed, and show teens what they can do about that depression. Depression is a “hostile agent in the body like diabetes, but more deadly,” Palmiter said, but through interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy, teens and their families have a shot of overcoming that illness.
Still, awareness is key, and if “Thirteen Reasons Why” can stimulate important conversations, all the better: “It’s incredibly difficult to get kids who are in middle school and high school to pay attention to these kinds of issues,” Lipkins said. “If this series can do that, and then can be used in a powerful and positive way to show that there’s hope and alternatives to suicide, then it can be great.”