Netflix’s series “13 Reasons Why ” has really gotten people talking! Parents, teens, teachers, school administrators, and mental health professionals are buzzing about whether the series raises awareness about suicide prevention, or if it does more harm than good in its depiction of high school bullying and teen suicide. With suicide as the third leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24, suicide prevention is an important and even life-saving topic.

We’ve been working on a list of “recommended reads” for the newsletter, and I chose not to include the book by Jay Asher, on which the series is based, because something about the description didn’t sit right with me.

Then, a few weeks later, the Netflix series came out. Friends who are teachers started to ask me about it. I watched it this weekend so I could share an informed opinion. Finally, what bothered me about the description of the book clicked – it was the idea that there were 13 people to blame in the suicide of the main character.

There were pluses and minuses to the story, but overall, I have a lot of concerns about the graphic depiction of suicide and the underlying theme of blame throughout the story. There are two things I want to emphasize: 1) suicide is no one’s fault, and 2) graphic suicide imagery increases young people’s risk for suicide.

There was also no real discussion of mental illness throughout the series – given that 90% of people who die from suicide have an underlying diagnosable mental health condition, omitting this from the story is a serious oversight. We know that 50% of lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and this was a missed opportunity to bring greater attention to mental health conditions in youth and early detection.

One thing the series does well is its depiction of the social pressures that young people face. As an adult, it is easy to forget how intense every emotion and even the smallest social circle disruptions felt during your teen years. Many times throughout the show I thought “If any of them would just reach out to one grown up…” but as a teenager, some experiences feel insurmountable, completely isolating, and like the end of the world – and sometimes it’s hard to believe that anyone else could understand.

Anyone who is parenting or supporting a young person should watch this series if only to be reminded of the intensity of emotions and relationships that the teen years bring with them, and the secret, hidden challenges teens often face. It’s our job to give young people the support they need to navigate mental health issues and social pressures. I would not recommend this series for young people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have struggled with them previously.

Having representation of mental health conditions in the media is so important – but it’s even more important to portray mental health conditions and suicide safely and responsibly.

Ashley Fontaine
Executive Director

(Originally featured in NAMI Seattle’s Spring 2017 Newsletter)