What I learnt from watching 13 Reasons Why with my teenage son

We could have banned them from watching. Instead, we turned the show into a conversation starter.

We could have banned them from watching. Instead, we turned the show into a conversation starter.

OPINION: Mental health professionals offer good reasons not to watch the teen suicide TV series 13 Reasons Why. They argue it sensationalises suicide and glamourises the central character, 17-year-old Hannah Baker. The show could disturb vulnerable teenagers, they argue. The term "suicide contagion" pops up.

Feel free to call me a bad father of two teenagers and three 20-somethings, but I have just spent 13 hours watching the Netflix series with my wife and our 15-year-old son.

Why did we watch it? Because our son really wanted us to see it all.

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He was so keen that he sat through it a second time and watched us like a hawk when each key bit appeared. If we wandered off to make a cup of tea, he said, "No, come back, you have to concentrate, this is important."

Our son knows I regularly answer calls at Lifeline from people of all ages who have suicidal thoughts. All my kids know how my wife has supported me during my mental health struggles.

Yet our son even warned us about confronting bits in the show.

Mental health support groups Headspace and Mindframe among others have issued stern warnings about how the series deals with suicide and rape.

But I am torn: is it better to be open about how suicide occurs or leave it to the teenage imagination?

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We could have tried to ban our children from watching it. We could have joined the outrage.

Instead we have tried to turn the show into a positive: an educational tool and conversation starter.

For those who have not seen it, here comes the spoiler.

The show exposes 13 people or incidents that Hannah Baker believed led to her death. It covers bullying, assault, rape, betrayal, family dysfunction and even a school counsellor who could have done more.

Welcome back.

A number of children who attend my son's public high school have died by suicide in the past few years.

Lifeline research shows that between 2011 and 2015, there were 413 suicide deaths of persons aged between 5 and 17 years of age. Mental health group Orygen cites research that estimates about 30 per cent of adolescents aged 12-20 have thought about suicide.

My son's keenness to have us watch 13 Reasons Why tells me a few things.

One is that he and his friends are going to watch it, no matter what we as parents say. And as Orygen says, "talking about (suicide) will not 'plant the idea in their head'."

Yes, there is a difference between talking and watching 13 Reasons Why.

As such I reckon we need to inform ourselves about the show's content so we can talk to our children about it.

My son's desire to have us watch also tells me that he is thinking about why anyone might consider taking his or her life. That means he might feel low, which means again that we should be talking about the issues he deals with.

His keenness might also mean that the suicide awareness programme at his school is doing its job and that he is open to helping his mates should they struggle.

It seems that watching the series was a positive for him and for his relationship with us.

Of course he is just one kid. The concern is for those teenagers who don't watch the series, talk about their feelings or have family support.

If as a community we are going to turn a programme such as 13 Reasons Why into a positive, then we still need to challenge head-on the higher risk portrayals in the series. The graphic suicide images in the show are problematic. They go against recommended media guidelines that warn against detailing the method of any suicide. 

Another risk is that some might see Hannah Baker as a hero for outing colleagues and adults. As Headspace says of reporting suicide, "Care needs to be taken not to give the impression that suicide was a positive outcome for the young person".

After my teen daughter watched 13 Reasons Why she said she didn't like the "blaming" involved. Headspace makes clear that "young people often want answers about why a suicide has occurred, and this can lead to them blaming the death on a particular event or person". The safest response is to "explain that suicide is not simple and is often the result of a range of contributing factors".

In the show's defence, at least it examines a dozen contributing factors and depicts the impact suicide has on other people.

I recommend you consider watching the series and using it to get closer to your children. That might help you spot any warning signs.

But if you don't, and you try to stop your kids from watching, at least do your research about suicide so you can talk to them about it.

Such is life …


The Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812) will refer callers to some of the helplines below:

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz.

0800 WHATSUP children's helpline – Phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays, and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at whatsup.co.nz.

Kidsline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.

* Your local Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

 - SMH


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