Health & Fitness

‘13 Reasons Why’ has sparked conversation about teen suicide

Dylan Minnette in the Netflix series ‘13 Reasons Why.’
Dylan Minnette in the Netflix series ‘13 Reasons Why.’ Netflix/TNS

Veronica Lepere wants her 11-year-old son to feel like he can talk to her about anything — especially after he was bullied at school.

“You never know if there’s something they’re not telling you,” she said.

Lepere was one of many parents who attended a panel discussion put on by Baptist Health South Florida last week to discuss the popular Netflix teen drama series, “13 Reasons Why,” which revolves around the life of fictional high school student Hannah Baker, who committed suicide after a series of incidents at her school. Viewers learn about her through the 13 mysterious tapes she left behind in a box, one for each person she said played a role in her decision. The series is based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher, “Thirteen Reasons Why.’’

Speaking on the panel were medical and counseling professionals from South Miami Hospital and Baptist Health South Florida, along with a psychologist from Miami-Dade Schools and the chief operating officer of the nonprofit Hope for Miami.

Participants received a packet with an index card so they could ask their questions anonymously. One parent wrote in all capital letters, “WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU CANNOT AFFORD TO PAY FOR COUNSELING FOR YOUR CHILD?”

The mother, Diane Pilz, said after the panel discussion that getting help hasn’t been easy. Pilz said she has spent the last five years searching for a counselor for her daughter, but she could not afford a private practice therapist on her teacher’s salary.

“You have no idea how hard it is,” she said. “I see my daughter needs help, but I can’t afford it. Why does it need to be so hard?”

Other parents asked where Hannah’s fictional parents went wrong. Frank Zenere, a psychologist with Miami-Dade Schools, said people often look for the one moment that causes suicide, when, in fact, it is a “multi-factor, complex behavior.” Zenere called for an emphasis on both physical and mental health, noting how one influences the other.

A crowd of parents and teenagers listen as panelists Dr. Elizabeth Skjoldal, Nicole Rodriguez, Dr. Julie Kanter, Frank Zenere, and Yvonne Sawyer answers parents’ talk about “13 Reasons Why.” Courtesy of Baptist Health

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Firearms, suffocation (including hanging) and poisoning (including drug overdoses) are the three most common ways this group kills itself, the CDC says.

“The show is a composite of all teens’ risk issues put together to be the perfect storm,” said Zenere, the crisis management program chairman at Miami-Dade Schools.

Though Zenere said he hasn’t seen a huge increase in student referrals to guidance counselors, counselors have reported that some students who saw the show said they had suicidal thoughts. Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa wrote a letter to parents saying how the series has caused “an increase in youth at-risk behavior,’’ according to the Palm Beach Post.

Beth Dubber/Netflix TS

The panel was stumped when one parent asked if watching the show was causing higher incidents of teen suicide. On one hand, they agreed that it provoked a much-needed conversation, but they said it is a negative representation of what Elizabeth Skjoldal, the director of Care & Counseling Services of Baptist Health South Florida, calls the “ultimate gotcha.”

“Suicide is the ultimate revenge and you can see that in the show,” she said. “The ones really affected are the ones left behind.”

Skjoldal moderated the panel. She said her two teenage daughters were afraid to watch the series. When experts talked about the stigma associated with mental health, she pointed out that depression was the “common cold of the medical world.”

“Everyone is going to have it at some point, but you’d never know that because we’re taught not to talk about it,” she said.

“People think, ‘I’m not crazy,’” she laughed. “But we’re all messed up; the healthy people just admit it.”

When parents asked how they could help their children, she had a simple answer: listen. Shutting down children when they are trying to express themselves is what Skjoldal said causes children to hold things back from their parents.

Nicole Rodriguez agreed.

“That’s the importance of having a relationship with your kid, so they feel like they can come to you rather than doing something drastic,” said Rodriguez, a counselor with Care & Counseling Services.

Parents should set aside time to ask their children about their day, perhaps telling them about things they encountered in their own lives as a way to keep the discussion open, the panelists said. In the series, Hannah’s parents didn’t question how their daughter’s behavior was changing, and her guidance counselor didn’t validate her feelings.

Zenere said that there were missed opportunities in her life, a similarity he said he sees in real life.

“As long as we keep it a ‘shhh’ topic, we won’t be able to overcome it,” Zenere said.