Talk to teenagers about 13 Reasons Why, urge mental health professionals and parents

Talk to teenagers about 13 Reasons Why, urge mental health professionals and parents

A popular and controversial Netflix series that depicts suicide has prompted warnings from Quebec mental health professionals and parents to discuss the television show with teenagers.

13 Reasons Why focuses on the events that lead 17-year-old Hannah Baker, a fictional high school student, to take her own life. Prior to killing herself, Baker leaves audiotapes behind for her friends to listen to.

Johanne Renaud, the medical chief of the Douglas Institute's Child Psychiatry Program, says that parents shouldn't prevent their teenagers from watching the series, but instead join them.

"As a parent, if your son or daughter is currently in depression or going through a difficult moment, you need to make sure that you pay attention to this TV series and their reaction to it," she said.

Talk to teens about it

Renaud said that 13 Reasons Why, which has been criticized for its graphic scenes of rape and suicide, lacks nuance. It explores the topics of suicide, bullying, rape and other difficult subjects, but it focuses on "risk factors" rather than helpful resources, she added.

"You can use the series to discuss about bullying, about high school, about future friendships and even relationships [between] teenagers and their parents," said Renaud.

That's exactly what Effie Vassilas did when she watched the show with her 15-year-old daughter.

"I found it was a powerful message, it wasn't only about suicide," she said.

The mother of two believes parents should watch with their teenagers, so that they can discuss the topics and warning signs of suicide and self harm.

"What I really want for her to take away from all of this is to be aware of it actually happens then to step in and to help someone who could be in that situation and to notice," said Vassilas.

Highly criticized

While some parents and health care professionals believe the series could lead to positive dialogue about self harm and suicide, others say some of the scenes go too far.

"Experts would say showing methods of suicide is irresponsible and not the way we would ever ask for that to be done. We are also concerned about the glamourization," said Dr. Kathy Short, the director for School Mental Health ASSIST, a support team that promotes mental health in Ontario schools.

"People might think that there is some sort of resolution in suicide — there isn't."

In Canada, some experts have sent recommendations to some schools in Quebec and Ontario to not to use the series as a teaching tool.

Renaud said the Institute's Suicide Prevention Centre has heard how the show is affecting some teens, which is why it's important to discuss it with them.

"We receive teenagers who suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts, so when they watch that TV series, we've heard that there was an increase in their suicidal thoughts, so that's why we were worried about it," she said.

'Catalyst for conversation,' Netflix says

Netflix says it was always well aware about the sensitive topics covered in the series, which is why it gave the show a "mature audience" rating.

"We gave the series a TV-MA rating, added explicit warnings on the three most graphic episodes, produced an after show, "Beyond the Reasons," that delves deeper into some of the tougher topics portrayed, as well as created a global website to help people find local mental health resources," Netflix told CBC in a statement sent via email.

"Entertainment has always been the ultimate connector and we hope that 13 Reasons Why can serve as a catalyst for conversation."