Parents, counselors find ‘13 Reasons Why’ TV can spark conversation

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 26, 2017

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BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD — The new Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” is all the rage with young adult viewers across the country.

The dramatic series, based on a 10-year-old novel, is about a series of tapes a teen girl recorded just before committing suicide, explaining why she made the fateful decision. It isn’t until others in the community see the tapes that they start to empathize and see the harsh reality of the bullying she was living with every day.

Though the series is getting huge ratings from viewers of all ages, some groups are saying the topic of mental health is exploited for entertainment. Some critics even claim the show glamorizes suicide.

Even so, the story has captured the attention of millions. Count Groves High School junior Stephanie Green as a fan.

“I actually have watched the series twice now, in addition to reading the book. From a film perspective, myself and many others I’ve talked to about (it) thought that the series was very well done. The reaction I’ve heard from my friends and on social media have been that it’s had a big influence on them and forced them to reflect on how they treat other people.”

But as president of the Birmingham Community Coalition’s Youth Action Board, Green said she recognizes why there have been mixed feelings among parents and mental health professionals.

“Most of the backlash I’ve seen of it is its portrayal of some more sensitive topics like rape, sexual assault, physical abuse, drinking and driving, and lots of youth substance abuse. The portrayal of some of these topics are some of the most authentic that I’ve seen in television in a while, which is (why) it may be flashing warning signs to some viewers,” Green explained, saying that some of the imagery, particularly the last scene where the protagonist slits her wrists — only to be found minutes later by her parents — could be a trigger for some struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide.

It’s a jarring scene, one of many that definitely warrants the Mature Adult rating attached to the series. But shortly after those final few moments, another portion of the series airs: the after-show, with 30 minutes of interviews with the young actors in the series discussing their own thoughts on medical and mental health.

That’s where the show could actually be a useful tool for families, said Julie Brenner, executive director of the Alliance of Coalitions for Healthy Communities.

“I watched it, and even in my 40s, I definitely had some really strong reactions to it. It kind of takes you back to being in high school again,” Brenner said. “But from the standpoint of my work as a prevention (advocate), I recognize there is an opening here for major conversations about mental health and feelings about this emotional content.”

She advised parents with teenagers interested in the show to watch it with their child, and make sure they watch the after-show and then talk about their feelings and how the story affected them personally.

After all that, Brenner said, families should also become familiar with the local resources available to residents who need mental health assistance of any kind.

“Within Oakland County specifically, we’re making sure people are connecting to our local resources, and we have a super strong one with Common Ground,” she said. “It’s not just for parents. They have a text line and a chat line — they’re meeting people where they’re at.”

Carol Mastroianni, of the Birmingham Bloomfield Community Coalition, works closely with Brenner, the Alliance of Coalitions for Healthy Communities and the Oakland County Community Mental Health Authority, soon to be Oakland Community Health Network. She said the surge in bullying in schools has turned the BBC and other coalitions into organizations not just advocating against substance abuse, but also against cruelty among peers.

While she said it’s important for parents to stay vigilant and watch for signs of depression or thoughts of suicide with their child, she knows that even adults can have a hard time with those tough topics.

“It’s important for parents to check in with themselves in regards to their feelings about suicide and the other subject matter shown in ‘13 Reasons Why.’ Sometimes as a parent, we may have a repressed emotion around a life event that may surface as that subject comes up while raising our own children,” Mastroianni said in an email. “This is perfectly natural and is also an opportunity to seek out professional support to heal the old wound or experience so you are able to see it through your adult eyes.”

She advised parents to practice calming techniques for themselves before discussing potentially uncomfortable topics with their children. As a parent, she said, a calm energy will maintain a calm, relaxed conversation with your child that will ultimately be more productive.

Then, she added, if your child does reveal that they’ve had thoughts about suicide or has a friend who has discussed it, thank them for sharing that information with you and take the next appropriate steps.

“Remain calm and let your child know that as his/her parent, you love them, are here for them and will take care of getting the support they need to get through this. If it is a friend of theirs, thank your child for sharing this information and for being such a good friend. Depending on your relationship with the family, you could approach the parents. If you do not know the family, you can speak to your school’s counselor to anonymously give them a heads-up to check in on that child,” she continued in the email.

To learn more about the Birmingham Bloomfield Community Coalition, visit bbcoalition.org. Find out more about Common Ground by visiting common groundhelps.org or calling (800) 231-1127.

Netflix declined to comment to the Eagle about “13 Reasons Why.”