"13 Reasons Why" Sparks Conversation About Tough Topics (Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register)

Posted 06/02/2017

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The popular Netflix show "13 Reasons Why," which portrays a fictional teen's death by suicide and the aftermath, has sparked the curiosity of young people and the concern of parents and school counselors in the Diocese of Nashville and around the country.

Counselors from Catholic Charities of Tennessee hosted a panel discussion at St. Edward School on May 23 to help guide teachers and parents in talking to teens about the show, which includes graphic depictions of rape and suicide.

Even though suicide is the third leading cause of death in the United States for young people ages 15-24, it remains a somewhat taboo topic, which is one allure of the show, according to counselors.

Catholic Charities counselor Amy Sturm, who is based at Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksville, encouraged parents to make time to watch the show with their children and help walk them through the issues they encounter while viewing it. "A great time to connect with your teen is to watch it with them," she said, then "open the door and listen," in a non-judgmental way while they share their reactions.

Sturm, the mother of two teenage boys, said it's important to have face-to-face conversations about these issues because "so much of their interaction these days takes place through technology," behind a screen, where they don't have the opportunity to read facial cues and gauge physical and emotional responses.

Counselors recommend that parents use their discretion about allowing children to watch "13 Reasons Why," but say that it might be unrealistic to expect that their older teens won't find a way to watch the much buzzed-about show.

The show, based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher, has been dominating the conversation this spring, say counselors and teachers.

"With this show, it seems like a lot of kids already watched it before it was even on the parents' radar, so we're playing catch up," said Lisa McGovern, L.C.S.W., supervisor of counseling services for Catholic Charities of Tennessee. "I would encourage parents to be aware of it and be part of the conversation."

McGovern is concerned about teens binge-watching the show in isolation, especially those who struggle with self-harm, or have experienced sexual assault or suicidal thoughts. "It can really be a trigger for them, bringing that back up to the surface," she said. If they don't have a strong support network or the proper resources, "how do they manage those feelings?"

The Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network has offered resources to the community in response to "13 Reasons Why," which Catholic Charities counselors offered at the May 23 meeting. "While ‘13 Reasons Why' is far from an ideal portrayal of youth suicide, with the proper guidance it can serve as a tool for a deeper discussion about suicide, mental health, and other issues," the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network said in a statement.

Catholic Charities counselors addressed some of the individual issues with the show and how to handle them. Part of the problem is what the show leaves out, said McGovern. "It doesn't really show the mental health issues that often lead to suicide."

The series portrays several characters as having contributed to the lead character's death by suicide, but in reality no one person can or should be blamed for a suicide. "Mental illness is a factor in 90 percent of all suicides, and external factors usually cannot entirely explain why someone chooses to take his or her life," according to the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network.

Mental health conditions are common among teens and young adults. One in five live with a mental health condition, half developing the condition by age 14 and three quarters by age 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

McGovern emphasized that people struggling with suicidal thoughts should reach out to someone they trust for support.

Another concern about the show, McGovern said, was the inappropriate way in which the school guidance counselor responds to the lead character's thoughts of suicide. After seeing that, "we don't want students to feel like they can't reach out and talk to someone ... we want people to have conversations in healthy, constructive ways," she said.

One positive development from the show is an increase in peer-to-peer discussion about suicide. High school students report that this has more of an impact than a school presentation from a suicide prevention counselor, where "they might think about it for 30 minutes and then they don't think about it again," Sturm said.

When it comes to parents and teens talking about tough issues like rape and suicide, "this is not one conversation," McGovern said. "It should be on-going."


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