One good reason to talk about “13 Reasons Why”: To Help Save a Life

By: Stan Collins

Stan Collins is a Suicide Prevention Specialist and Resource Navigator with the Each Mind Matters campaign. He has worked in suicide prevention for over seventeen years, and provided trainings on suicide prevention to over 500,000 teachers and students.

This is not another blog to criticize or applaud “13 Reasons Why,” Netflix’s highly polarizing drama series dealing with the aftermath of the suicide of a teenage girl. A quick Google search will turn up plenty of thoughtful pieces and emotional pleas from experts, educators, parents and teens that have been posted since the series launched in March.  I particularly recommend you check out “talking points” from The Jed Foundation and SAVE, and “Considerations for Educators” from The National Association of School Psychologists. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center created a comprehensive list of common questions and resources for parents, educators and media. If you want to take action, you can sign the petition at Change.org to have the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline added to the title slide of each episode.

Image credit: Netflix

As a suicide prevention specialist, I’m not without an opinion. However, my opinion on the show is not the motivation for this post. Instead I want to take this opportunity to direct attention to one very important, potentially life-saving, point: right now it seems everyone is talking about the topic of suicide, and specifically youth suicide. This is a good thing, it is an opportunity to have a much-needed conversation.

From social media to the Sunday paper, classrooms to kitchen tables, “13 Reasons Why” is provoking lots of conversation. As the choruses of praise and protest get louder and louder, they spotlight the undeniable truth that we weren’t talking enough about suicide before.

Suicide can be an uncomfortable subject. I think back to when my best friend died by suicide during my freshman year of high school, and what I remember most is the silence that filled the void left by his death. I remember sitting next to his empty seat in geometry class, but I don’t remember talking about it with an adult…ever.

Now, as a professional in the field, I’m often asked about the appropriate time to inquire if someone is having thoughts of suicide. My answer is, when you think you need to ask about suicide, then that is when you need to discuss suicide. But too often, we fear we will say the wrong thing and therefore say nothing. It’s time for this to change. We all need to be prepared to talk with our loved ones about suicide.

California’s suicide prevention campaign, (www.SuicideIsPreventable.org) offers valuable information about warning signs and how to talk to someone if you’re concerned they may be having thoughts of suicide. On the “Reach Out” tab, you can also find local and national resources ranging from attending a training to crisis services in your area.

The most important conversations we can be having right now are not about “13 Reasons Why,” they are about the issues raised, and those avoided by the series. And I’m not just referring to suicide.

Many of the youth I’ve spoken with feel that this show identifies very strongly with their lives and the issues they face, from substance abuse and self-medication to sexual assault and how often it is inadequately addressed, to the pressures that youth feel to be “normal,” and, of course, to mental wellness and suicide.

If people are ready to talk, then let’s really talk about suicide and suicide prevention — not behind closed doors, and not only with our peers or those in our own age group. Use this time as a teachable moment to open the door to conversations we too often avoid. Suicide is a big deal, but opening up about it doesn’t have to be.

We should all have the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800.273.8255) programmed into our phones. We should all understand that this number is not just for people in crisis, but is also for us when we are supporting someone through difficult times. I encourage everyone to share information about the Crisis Text Line (text CONNECT to 741741), The Trevor Lifeline (866.488.7386) and any of the other amazing resources that exist across our country.

For parents:

  • Ask your children and their friends:
    • Have any of your friends ever thought about or attempted suicide?
    • Do you know what to do in these situations? Will you promise to talk to me about it? I promise to help.
    • Have you ever thought about suicide? Do you know you can talk to me if you do?
    • Do you know about the Crisis Text Line or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline?
  • Ask your children’s school:
    • What policies do we have in place to address suicide prevention?
    • What trainings are offered for staff?

For everyone:

  • Ask yourself:
    • Do I feel prepared to respond to my loved ones if they tell me they don’t want to live anymore or are feeling suicidal?
    • Would I recognize the warning signs?
    • What can I do, and who can I talk to, if I ever have thoughts of suicide?

Now is not a time to have fewer conversations about suicide. Now is a time to bring suicide prevention into the spotlight, to ask ourselves the tough questions, even if we don’t like the answers, and then be vigilant until we’ve acquired the knowledge, skills and comfort to prevent suicide by encouraging our loved ones to keep living.


Disclaimer: This blog post is directed at community members who want to know how to address “13 Reasons Why” with their loved ones.  It does not include matters about messaging and reaching out to the media – broader issues that the suicide prevention community is grappling with.  If you want to know more about messaging, engaging with the media, and how you can support suicide prevention efforts in your community, please click here.