While the Netflix series, ’13 Reasons Why’ has enthralled teenage viewers with its mysterious story and unflinching look at teen mental health, it has also raised questions on how media should depict mental health and suicide.
Global News had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Stan Kutcher, one of Canada’s leading experts on teen mental health, to a new tool created by TeenMentalHealth.Org and the IWK Health Center to address concerns surrounding the popular series.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity
Jennifer Grudic: What’s the number one thing that bothers you the most about this series?
Dr. Stan Kutcher: We know that there are ways that the media can address suicide in a responsible way, and there are ways the media can address suicide that is more likely to cause harm than good.
The challenge with the Netflix series is that it chooses the later route, instead of the former route.
JG: What is it about this show that you think is so dangerous to people who are in a vulnerable spot in their life?
SK: Well, to put it into perspective, maybe young people, probably most that would watch the show, are not what we would call vulnerable.
So, they will see the show – they will be emotionally effected by it, but it is not likely to tip them into a behaviour that could be harmful to themselves, or even worse, could result in their death.
However, there is a group of vulnerable young people.
These would be youngsters who are struggling with mental illness, youngsters who have had a friend or a family member who have died from suicide, young people who are going some sort of crisis situation, and they are much more vulnerable to what we call the “contagion effects” of suicide.
What this show does is it breaks every single broadcasting or media guideline in how it portrays suicide.
When it does that, it actually creates a situation in which young people who are vulnerable are more likely to act in a way that could be harmful rather than helpful.
Getting the message out there
JG: This show is everywhere. It’s one of the first things that pops up when you turn on Netflix, it’s all over the media, like you said. What do you think can be done to get the message out that although this is just a show, it can be damaging and it can be harmful. Why is it important to get the message out that this is not how things work?
SK: I think that there are three different target audiences that that message has to get to, and the message is slightly different for each audience but there are commonalities.
The first audience is the media.
There are clear guidelines that have been established by journalists and by the World Health Organization on years of data about what kind of ways to portray suicide or report on suicide in way that would not to be harmful to vulnerable young people.
Clearly, the people that created the Netflix series didn’t pay attention to that, or may have purposefully, I have no idea what they did, but what they came up with violates all those guidelines.
The second thing is young people who are themselves vulnerable.
Now, there are components of the shows which make them even more vulnerable.
One, suicide is glamorized. Secondly, the heroine becomes more famous in death than she was in life.
Thirdly, that the adults who are in the movie come across as uncaring and unable to help. Fourthly, the mental illness component, which underlies most youth suicide, is never discussed.
There is no information given in the series about where to get help if you need help.
Every person that that this young women comes into contact with actually, “causes” her death by suicide, which is just ridiculous.
You have a vulnerable young person seeing that, identifying with the heroine, thinking that all these good things will happen and will choose suicide as a solution to her problems.
So, talking to students and young people about that to make sure that they understand that this is a fictional component.
This isn’t what suicide does – it doesn’t glamorise you after you die, it’s a tragic thing.
There are ways that you can get help and help is available and if you do get help you are more likely to be helped and do well. It’s so essential.
Schools are one way that that information can get out because kids get together in schools, kids will often bring these issues up with their teachers, and they will often discuss them in the school setting.
Schools are ideally placed to address some of these components.
The third group is the parents.
Many parents will be understanding and have a good knowledge of this area and they’ll be able to talk to their child about it.
But a lot of parents won’t and don’t have the knowledge or don’t have the relationship with their child that they are able to talk about it in a supportive and knowledgeable way.
So, getting that information to parents as much as possible is also good.
A new resource
JG: You talked about the targeted audiences. What compelled you in the first place to put together this type of resource? I was going over it and it is really comprehensively. What compelled you to take the time to address this series in particular?
SK: Well, because we have a concern. We have a concern on a number of fronts. We know that the road to hell can be paved with good intentions.
We have seen in Canada, since 2005, after years and years of declining suicide rates in young people, particularly in young girls, those rates starting to rise.
There has been concern that much of the talk about suicide has not been helpful, and may actually have the opposite impact.
And that when this series came on the market, that accentuated those concerns that this might then contribute to this negative outcome.
So really the response was ‘oh my Gosh’, things have been, on the suicide front, in terms of rates, not improving like we want them to improve.
In fact they’ve been getting worse. This is not going to help.
We’ve known this potential negative impact since 1774 and we’ve been through this with the media and journalists,
And what we have seen is really a tremendous responsibility taken on by the media to actually address this issue in a sensitive and thoughtful and helpful manner.
It’s sort of like ‘oh, dear’, after all those years of work, and a tremendous, excellent response from the media, now everything is just going the wrong way. And that’s what prompted us to address that.
JG: How do you hope this resource is used? How do you hope it’s going to get out there and get to the people who need it?
SK: Well, our purpose is to make it as widely available as possible. So, we’ve posted it on our website, we’ve posted it on the IWK website, we’ve informed departments of education, school boards that this is available should they wish to use it.
And as far as I know, that many people are appreciative that they have that and they can utilise it as best fits their own school environment.
Message to teenagers
JG: What would be your message to a teenager who is maybe thinking about watching this, or has watched it, and they’re maybe thinking they’ve been impacted by it?
SK: It wouldn’t be surprising that a young person or any person, because it’s pretty graphic, would have a significant emotional response to what they see.
If you’re a young person that has had that emotional impact, if it’s still persisting over and over again, if you’re a young person that is now having ideas about suicide or about self-harm, or that you’re identifying with the heroine as somebody who you’d like to emulate, then that’s a concern.
There are many people in your life who would want to help you if they knew you were having these challenges.
And they can be a parent, they can be another trusted adult, they can be a teacher in your school or a school councillor.
The key here is to reach out to them.
Many young people are compelled or feel more comfortable reaching out to their friends, and that’s good, but you really need to also reach out to a responsible adult.
And if one of your friends comes to you and shares that she or he is emotionally upset and is now having suicidal thoughts because of what they have seen, or other people have discussed with then, then one of your responsibilities is to go with your friend to seek that help from that responsible adult.
Where to get help
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.