Is Netflix’s new series “13 Reasons Why” too disturbing for kids to watch?  A collection of perspectives written by youth, parents and mental health professionals.

13 Reasons Why is a new series trending on Netflix. It is an American television series based on the 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. The show revolves around a student who dies by suicide after a series of issues, brought on by bullying and other conflicts. The content has warnings posted at the beginning, however, many youth and parents have reported that it is very disturbing.  And, because research has shown that reporting suicide in the media has the potential to influence vulnerable individuals to emulate suicide, many are concerned about the potential impact on youth who they themselves may be struggling with mental illness. But, research also shows that discussing mental illness openly can reduce stigma and may encourage those struggling with mental illness to seek help. Of further concern is the possible negative effect of binge watching this series, which is common practice for those watching a series on Netflix.

With all of the discussion about the potential impact on the mental health of kids watching this series, Children’s Mental Health Ontario, representing nearly 100 publicly-funded children and youth mental health centres advocates for quality care, funding and polices for children and youth with mental illness, reached out to youth, parents and mental health professionals to get their perspectives on the program. You’ll see that the responses are varied. Read their viewpoints below and if you decide to watch the show please ensure that you know where to reach out for help if you are in crisis. If you are a child or youth, there are many caring adults who will support you.

Youth and mental health advocate, Jaydon Turgeon of Carleton Place shares his perspective:

By now I'm sure we've all heard of the show on Netflix called "13 Reasons why". Here is my take on the show. 13 Reasons Why has to deal with multiple topics that film and TV typically portray poorly or aren't portrayed at all.

These topics include: bullying, suicide, sexual assault, depression, and victim blaming.

As a mental health advocate I believe that this show is amazing in the fact that it explores these topics that aren't really talked about or shown on television, which I feel that needs to be done more often. A lot of people watch television and I feel like with 13 Reasons Why, it is exposing people to the truth of one of the negative parts of society. Especially in our youth. I feel like some people can watch and start to maybe understand mental health/ mental illness even more. As well as highlight the unfortunate things that are happening in our schools. So we can try and get people to not only understand and help people but to help put an end to bullying, suicide, and victim abuse.

However, as a person who struggles with their mental health and has a mental illness that is pretty much unpredictable I had some hard times watching the show.

So my recommendation is if you do wish to watch the show be prepared to see some tough scenes and please DO NOT binge watch the show like I did. I actually watched an interview with the creators of the show and I also follow their Facebook Page. They also recommend that if you watch the show, to take it easy and watch it at your own pace. Which is what I would also suggest. 

My other suggestion is if you are struggling with your mental health right now and are not in the right mindset. I don't recommend watching it as it may be very triggering for some. Overall, I do recommend this show, however, I encourage people who are going to watch it to take it one episode at a time and remember to self-care if you need.

Vicki a parent and mental health professional from Oakville shares her views:

My 17 year old son began watching “13 Reasons Why” a couple of weeks ago after my niece said she’d read the book several years ago. As a parent and after watching several episodes with my son, I can completely understand the draw to this show for a young adult age group. It deals with issues and struggles that are particularly pertinent for many adolescents and the way the TV series is shown (with each episode representing one of the 13 tapes), it begs to be “binge watched”. While I appreciate and applaud, on one hand, a show that doesn’t “candy coat” the very real and serious issues with which youth are experiencing and trying to cope, what struck me was the extent to which this show is depressing and disturbing. There is no support depicted, there is no hope, there is little to no happiness (even a glimmer). Parents are portrayed as overworked and disengaged; other adults are not particularly supportive; there is only sadness, struggle, drug/alcohol use, aggression and, bullying. For anyone watching who is also struggling emotionally, this show potentially reinforces those very negative thoughts and feelings of how unhappy life can be and that there’s nobody to turn to for help. For those of us working in the children’s mental health sector, this is precisely what we are working so hard change – so kids know there are people who care, there is help, and there are places to go for support. This show potentially sets us back in that regard. If watching and you’re struggling, please reach out to someone. This is just a TV show, and unlike the TV show, there are many people and places you can turn to for help.

Jenny, Mental Health Professional, Ottawa , shares her views:

I am the Clinical Supervisor and a therapist at a trauma informed centre for young pregnant and parenting women age 14-25.  I met with a few of my clients that are watching the show who have had mental health issues and experienced trauma, and I have also watched it.  We all found it to be excellent and it does provide a warning before the show stating: the following episode contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing and/or may not be suitable for younger audiences, including graphic depiction of violence and suicide. Viewer discretion is advised.  Some clients did say that they were triggered by certain elements of the show, but have support and coping strategies to help them through it, and found that the risks outweighed the benefits. 

My clients found that the program shows a real depiction of suicidal ideation, which doesn't glamorize the person or the act and the impact of a completed suicide on their family, friends and school community.  They felt it also highlighted how we each have our own perception of an event which leads to different reactions depending on the person.  One client stated that when she had been hospitalized in the past for a suicide attempts that the program captured what her thoughts had been at the time and that "teenagers have messy lives with drama and consequences, but opening up a discussion around the reasons why youth may consider suicide as an option is needed."

I will quote one of the characters in the show who was trying to deal with the aftermath of the suicide and his feelings around it that he shared with the guidance counselor:  "It has to get better, the way we treat each other and look out for each other.” 

We have a Sources of Strength group at our Centre which focuses on spreading messages of hope, health and strength while promoting connectedness to break the silence when someone is struggling.  I thought the show highlighted so many issues that our youth face including, but not limited to bullying (rumors, intimidation), gender differences, domestic violence, anger and guilt,  objectification of women, exclusion, stalking, self-esteem, loneliness, lack of human contact and connection, anxiety, emotional dysregulation, depression, substance and alcohol abuse, grief, homophobia, the impact of social media, fear of rejection, relationship issues, entitlement, sexual abuse and post traumatic stress symptoms.  It also showed all different types of parental responses that youth may experience and the support that they may or may not receive. These are topics that are discussed every day in my therapy sessions and in our Embrace group which focuses on healthy relationships and self-esteem.  All of our clients have on site therapists they have access to daily and a case coordinator as well as part of our Intensive Treatment Support Team.

I understand why some mental health professionals, parents or youth may not want to watch the program due to their personal experiences, but I found it to be a thought provoking account of what youth unfortunately may struggle with today.

Comments from two youth wishing to remain anonymous provided to CMHO:

I started watching it without a trigger warning and I think it was one of the worst decisions I’ve made in a long time.

 “13 reasons why” does an excellent job bringing subjects like sexual assault, depression, and suicide to the forefront of the viewers mind, although these are important issues people unfortunately suffer with, the pure sincerity and naked portrayal of these difficult situations can be harmful to someone in an already negative mind set or a recovering one (like myself). Even someone who is deemed ‘stable’ watching an episode of “13 reasons why” may need to take a break to process the horrible things happening to the characters on the show, so for those already struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues “13 reasons why” should be avoided regardless of how many of their peers are watching it. The complete lack of happiness or normalcy in the show creates a very damning atmosphere for anyone who already feels like life is a burden. While this show is obviously not supposed to be all rainbows and sunshine, the complete lack of an outlet for the characters is noticeable. None of them have something positive to take their mind off the current events happening, none of them are ever depicted in a situation that doesn’t have a negative effect. IMO, anyone experiencing mental health issues should refrain from watching “13 reasons why.”

Beth Nowosad, 24, Keswick Ontario shares her viewpoint:

Rarely does a book come along that changes your perspective on life. Rarer still, does an adaptation to film do the book and story justice. I think it’s important to read the book in order to understand the TV series better, the series did an excellent job of showing the ripple effect of a suicide while staying true to the overall meaning of the story.

Mary-Anne Leahy, New Mentality Network Coordinator, the New Mentality, a program of CMHO which provides a platform for youth to act as leaders in their community, to raise mental health awareness and decrease stigma, gain access to training and mentorship opportunities, and contribute to provincial youth-led policy work led through its Youth Action Committee:

Many of our New Mentality youth have posted online about the show, 13 Reasons Why, some in support of the dialogue the show is creating and others with very strong concerns about the triggering content. I have personally chosen not to watch this show for my own mental health and worry that some of our young people are being put in harms way by the graphic nature of the show. Although, it may be ok for some people to watch I am very worried about our vulnerable youth watching this show alone at 2am with no one to support them. If any one is thinking about watching this show I hope you consider where your meant health is and what your self-care and support strategies are.

Kim Moran, CEO of CMHO and a parent watched “13 Reasons Why” with her daughter, here are their comments:

My daughter and I watched the show last week. When my daughter was 11, she was very depressed and suicidal for a number of months. Now that she is 17, she is healthy but manages her anxiety levels carefully. She really wanted to watch the show because in her words, “everyone is watching it” and I wanted to support her. 

Both of us found the show hard to watch. There are scenes that are very difficult to watch about rape and suicide. I thought it was unnecessarily graphic but my daughter disagreed with me.  She felt it highlighted important issues. The parents and guidance counselors in the show didn’t provide appropriate support to kids who were struggling and I think that paints an unnecessarily negative picture. Parents, guidance counselors and other caring adults can and do provide helpful supports. We both were concerned that if someone had suicidal thoughts at one time, that watching it would be really, really hard and it might trigger some really concerning thoughts.

My daughter is glad she watched it, although she was glad that I was there to support her. I don’t think everyone needs to watch it. It focuses on really negative issues around bullying – they are all true and real – but doesn’t show kids experiencing happiness – there is no balance.  

For kids who are struggling with mental health issues I would suggest you skip it. But, if you still want to watch it, make sure that you have a supportive caregiver close at hand and stay away from binge watching. 

IF YOU ARE IN CRISIS call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room.

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