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Parental Advisory Notice on 13RW: Why Not To Watch

Much has been written over the past several weeks about the Netflix mini-series 13 Reasons Why.  The series tells the story of a fictional adolescent who committed suicide and left audio tapes to 13 people in her life describing their alleged role in her decision to take her life.

The controversy centers on whether the series is a consciousness-raising contribution which might prevent the incidence of suicide, or a dangerously-suggestive piece that will scandalize many young people (with scenes of rape, sexual confusion, graphic violence, bullying, etc.) and lower the threshold to considering suicide among the vulnerable.  Mental health professionals argue consistently for the latter, for when it comes to self-harming behaviors [1] among youth, including suicide, the phenomena of contagion [2] has been suspected for years.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, exceeded only by accidents and homicide.  Couple that grim statistic with the known harms of exposure to pornography [3] and violence [4] on young developing minds, and the risks of the series far outweigh any potential benefits.  With all due respect to the producers and others who are putting forth the narrative that the series’ addressing of serious, intense teen issues is necessary to make clear the harsh realities facing our youth, there are other, less graphic, more informative and more life-giving ways of accomplishing such goals.

I concur with the recommendations that viewing of this series be avoided by all youth (and many adults as well).  This series presents images and ideas which cannot be forgotten, which could have longer-term impacts on viewers’ sense of self, their view of relationships, and their willingness and ability to cope with the inevitable stressors that impinge upon teens in contemporary society.  If an adolescent insists that he or she needs to view the series as a means of keeping his or her social capital, and cannot be brought to understand how it conflicts with the family’s life-affirming values, then by all means parents should insist that they watch together, and be prepared to his pause many times throughout every episode to discuss and process what is being seen.

Fact Worse Than Fiction

Though this series is fictional, a recent court ruling has brought the intensity of the tragedy of suicidal youth to full view.  One headline [5] of the tragedy reads:

A woman who sent her boyfriend a barrage of text messages urging him to kill himself when they were both teenagers was convicted Friday of involuntary manslaughter

The transcripts of the case are chilling (most notably, her commands to “just do it” and “get back in” the carbon monoxide-filled car), and frightfully demonstrate just how devoid of true empathy [6] our culture has become, how intolerant of suffering [7] many people are, and how the assisted-suicide debate is changing the way some people think about the value and dignity of life [8].

One can imagine a different outcome if the young woman in this case had looked into her friend’s eyes, rather than the text on the screen, or understood that his suffering, while certainly sad, painful and difficult, did not make his life worthless.

Facts To Know

Most teens who attempt or commit suicide have a mental health condition or substance abuse problem as a risk factor.  As a result, they have trouble coping with the stresses of being a teen, such as dealing with rejection, failure, breakups and family turmoil.  They might also be unable to see that they can turn their lives around — and that suicide is a sadly permanent, unnecessary “solution” to a temporary problem.  The warning signs [9] are identifiable (talking about death, feeling hopeless, social withdrawal, reckless behavior to name a few), and prevention is possible (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)).

In the moment, many of the most helpful interventions [10] for someone who is feeling suicidal or threatening self-harm don’t require professional expertise at all, but rather, simply the engaged presence of another, caring, person who is willing to invest his or her time in being available to the person in a time of need.  This caring presence decreases the suffocating sense of isolation being experienced and offers the suffering soul an opportunity to talk about the feelings he or she is having (rather than having the thoughts gnaw away in one’s head).  This can be of great help.  It is also important to note that if someone is suicidal it is critical to remove from his or her access any lethal means of self-harm (pills, guns, knives, etc.).

In summary, what people need when feeling at the end of their ropes, is someone who will be attentive to their distress and their needs, is willing to hear about their emotional life, and is willing to provide the hope and assurance that things will not always seem to be as they are at that moment.  As the source of such grave distress can often times be conflict with loved ones, facilitating or offering forgiveness in these relationships can go a long way towards bringing peace to suffering souls in need of healing.