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Suicide prevention specialists ask parents to talk with kids about second season of “13 Reasons Why”

SALT LAKE CITY – The second season of a controversial and popular Netflix is released today.  Suicide prevention specialists say every parent should talk with their children about the show “13 Reasons Why,” but, that doesn’t mean everyone should watch it.

Experts have several gripes with the first season of 13 Reasons Why.  For one, it showed a method that people could use to take their own lives.  Plus, every time the main character tried to get help for her problems, the show depicted that as a waste of time, which Utah Department of Health Spokesperson Jenny Johnson says isn’t true at all.

“Someone will listen to you and they will be willing to get help.  They love you and they want you to get better,” Johnson says.

Also, Johnson says the show isn’t really about the main character’s mental health.  It was more about revenge.

“Seeing this kind of revenge scene and the [idea of] when you’re dead you can influence what people do and how they think about you… it’s just not reality,” she says.

Within the first 19 days of the release of the first season of 13 Reasons Why, there was a spike in the number of Google searches for how to commit suicide, according to Johnson.  However, there was also a rise in the number of searches for suicide prevention.

So, even though it sparked a discussion about the topic, Johnson says there are people who shouldn’t watch the show, at all.

She says, “Anybody who is not in a healthy place right now, who may be suffering from a mental health condition, depression, anxiety or who have survived a recent trauma or a sexual assault.”

Even if you’re in a healthy state of mind, the Department of Health is recommending people don’t binge watch either the first or second season. The subject matter of the show is serious enough that it should be discussed.

“You can hit pause and talk about what’s happening and ask you child, ‘How do you feel about this?’” she says.

Even if your child isn’t interested in seeing 13 Reasons Why, Johnson says kids at school will be talking about it, so, this is an opportunity for parents to talk with their kids about heavy subjects like suicide, depression and sexual assault.

There is also a resource guide for parents about this show on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website.

See Something, Say Nothing?

We’re frequently told “see something, say something” if we spot a potential problem. But, when it comes to helping possible suicidal teens, educators still have a lot of questions about what they’re allowed to say, and who to.

While speaking to the KSL Editorial Board, Representative Mia Love said principals and other administrators have contacted her with a lot of questions about what they’re allowed to do for students who may be suicidal.  They weren’t sure who they could reach out to in order to help the child without breaking privacy or liability laws.

“When we first started pushing, for example, school-based suicide prevention programming, there were questions about whether state law allowed for staff to ask students if they were having thoughts of suicide,” says Utah State Division of Mental Health Suicide Prevention Coordinator Kim Myers.

This was changed by the legislature in 2014.

“We passed legislation to clarify that school employees can ask about suicide and self-harming behavior for the purpose of referring them to appropriate services and informing the parent,” she says.

However, educators still have limits on what they can do to help a teen they believe is in crisis.  For instance, they can request emergency care or medical treatment only if they feel a child is going to harm themselves or other people.

But, when it comes to helping a child who may be going through something like depression or anxiety, Myers says, “That’s where it gets more into a grey area.  A lot of people feel their hands are tied if, for whatever reason, a parent isn’t engaging.”

Plus, school administrators are not allowed to have a student committed for psychological treatment without a parent’s consent.

There are other programs that don’t give psychological treatment that schools can offer.

“Are there school activities that can increase bonding and connection to peers or adults?  Are there opportunities for skill development?” Myers asks.

Normal teenage moodiness? Or Depression?

Psychologists explain it’s normal for children to start shutting their parents out when they become teenagers. It’s also normal to see more moodiness and rebellion in your child. But when you notice your child is consistently hopeless or sad, it may be time to step in.

“You’d expect some irritability from a teenager but you wouldn’t expect irritability all of the time,” said Dr. Doug Gray, a Professor of Child Psychiatry. “I would certainly worried if my teenager didn’t want to be with their friends.”

He said it can be an awkward conversation, but it’s crucial parents step in at that point and find out if their children are struggling with bullying, anxiety or depression.

“I wouldn’t be afraid to ask them if they’ve had struggles with feeling hopeless or suicidal feelings,” Gray said. “Sometimes that direct question gets to it.”

But if it doesn’t work, Gray has a work around.

“I’d ask them what percentage of the time they are happy. No one is happy all the time. If they are happy 85 percent of the time that’s pretty good. If they are happy 10 percent of the time that’s really worrisome.”

Gray says if you approach with love and give the conversation plenty of time to play out…your teen will probably tell you if they are struggling.

What can I do to help?

“There’s not just going to be one magic program or a single solution,” said Catherine Supiano, with the Direct Caring Connection Program.

She said some kids just need adults in their lives who are willing to listen with compassion and an open-mind. She said when teens are struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts they don’t need to be told to toughen up, they need a safe space to talk. Other teens aren’t willing to talk to people they know, but will use text or phone hotlines if they know it’s an option.

“They’re afraid the known person won’t take them seriously, will mock them or give them that ‘buck up’ message,” Supiano said.

And sometimes, she said it just takes more than one adult they can go to. Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, Neighbors and religious leaders can all help to take off a little bit of that steam.

“Adults are proof you can survive high school,” she said.

Supiano urges adults to reach out when they notice a teen is struggling. A 24 hour phone hotline is available at 1-800-273-8255. The SafeUT app also provides a suicide prevention professional who can text 24 hours a day.

Gray said if a teenager needs professional help a parent may need to step in and explain they don’t have a choice in the matter.

“An adult can choose not to wear a seat belt or to smoke, but kids don’t have those options,” he said. “When they are struggling with a medical problem it’s okay for a parent to say ‘You are going.'”​