Dr. Laura Rocker, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in the Division of Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology at Akron Children’s Hospital, discusses the controversial Netflix series about teen suicide.
Q. The teen drama has been heavily criticized for its portrayal of Hannah Baker, a girl who commits suicide and leaves behind recordings to 13 classmates she blames for her misery. Many say the fictionalized story gets a lot of things wrong about teen suicide. What are your thoughts?
A: We have a lot of patients who are watching it. If there is a positive aspect, the series offers a compelling portrayal of the emotional state that a number of kids experience. A lot of teens can relate to her struggles. But the depiction of suicide is very disturbing. It glamorizes suicide, and it glamorizes adolescents in general.
Q. How so?
A: The message is that she committed suicide because of all the terrible things people did to her (bullying, sexual assault, betrayals). It doesn’t acknowledge mental illness. They didn’t create the character as having a psychiatric disorder. We know that generally, kids who kill themselves have a history of depression or another psychiatric disorder – or a problem with substance abuse. There is no acknowledgement of that in the series, which is very troubling.
Q: So typically, suicide doesn’t happen without warning?
A: Usually there is some sort of warning that something is wrong. One of the big predictors of people who kill themselves is that they have tried it before. Suicide is not generally a response to having difficulties. It’s more complicated than the series makes it appear.
Q: How should parents respond to “13 Reasons Why?”
A: Younger adolescents should not watch it. But it’s on Netflix, so it’s everywhere. Kids are tuning in, and even if it’s not allowed at home, they could be watching at a friend’s house. I think parents should watch it with their teens, and use it as an opportunity to have a conversation. Ask if they have ever felt like Hannah felt. Do they relate to her? Don’t be afraid to ask if they have thought about suicide. There’s no evidence that asking about suicide is destructive, that it will give someone the idea. Asking could lead kids to open up about their problems.
Q: Some have said “13 Reasons Why” offers lessons for parents – in that fictional parents in the series were largely detached from their kids’ lives.
A: Yes, it’s incredibly important to stay involved with what your kids are doing. Keep a dialogue going, and listen to their concerns.