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Supporting each other through 13 Reasons Why: A youth worker’s perspective

[TW: suicide]

Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why premiered at the end of March, and has had people buzzing ever since. Some praise its willingness to explore themes some shy away from, while others harshly criticise its graphic depictions of suicide and glossing over mental health aspects. 

Here in New Zealand, the NZ Classification Office even had to create an entirely new rating, RP18, over concerns about graphic content in the show.

At Zeal we are passionate about mental health – so much so we have a whole project dedicated to it called Live For Tomorrow. We believe that like physical health, mental health needs to be nurtured.

Regardless of whether 13 Reasons Why is helpful or not, heaps of people are watching it, so we’ve put together some pointers and suggestions around how to approach conversations with people you care about.

Understanding the Themes

For some of us, 13 Reasons Why may provoke feelings of distress. Some common responses we’ve heard have been:

  • I’ve experienced some of the bullying or negative things that happened to Hannah at my school – what can I do?

  • I knew someone who committed suicide – I should have tried harder or done something differently.

  • I’ve done some of the things in this show to others to make them feel bad – what if they commit suicide?

  • I had a bad experience with my school counsellor – there’s no point in seeing another one.

  • I’m overwhelmed – what can anyone do if someone really wants to kill themselves?

  • I was already feeling like harming or killing myself – maybe I should do it like Hannah.

  • Hannah’s just getting revenge – she made the decision to end her life then blamed the others.

Discuss it!

It’s such a rare thing these days to really feel like someone is listening to you. Opening up to someone and having them reassure you that your experiences are valid. To have them really take in what you’re saying and ask questions that actually lead somewhere, so you know they want to understand rather than to rush it along. Talking is good! 

Here are some ways you can support others in conversation about 13 Reasons Why.

Start the conversation

  • “So you’ve seen 13 Reasons Why – what did you think about it/what feelings did it bring up?”

  • “What did you like about the show?”

  • “Were there any parts you found hard to deal with?”

  • “What parts of your experience at High School/as a teenager have been similar or different?

  • “What were the main things you took from the show?”

Hear their story

  • Demonstrate unconditional positive regard – all parts of their own experience are valid.

  • Be non-judgmental – aware of your own judgements, putting them aside when listening.

  • Use minimal encouragers – facial expression, nods, “uh-huh”, “I see”, “can you tell me more about that?”

  • Use plenty of open questions (what, where, when, who, how) to explore. Clarify with closed (yes/no) questions.

  • If they are having difficulty expressing the way they feel, reflect what you think they might be feeling, and check if that’s correct – “sounds like that made you pretty angry, do you think that’s what you’re feeling?”

Conversation goals

  • That whatever their experience of this topic, they will be heard – nothing is off limits.

  • That you can identify or reframe some of their experience that is positive.

  • Focus on what can be done – what happens when they get back to school. 

  • This is complex. Aim to help them towards a next step, connecting with other people or help services around this topic.

Exploring suicidal thoughts

For some viewers of the series, it can bring up thoughts of suicide. Here’s some tools to help you if you are concerned about someone.

Keep these things in mind

  1. By asking about suicide, you are unlikely to plant ideas of suicide in a person’s mind. You’re likely either to get a “yeah, actually I’ve thought about it before/been thinking about it recently” or a “no, not at all” response. Often there is relief that someone asked.

  2. Do not get into detail about suicide methods. This can increase the risk of a suicide attempt in those already thinking about it.

  3. If you think there may be a risk of suicide, get in contact with an appropriate help service or professional. Keep the person as involved in the process as possible and aware of what’s happening.

Talking about suicide

Ask about their experience and be as straight up as possible. Make sure that they’re safe in that moment. If they are thinking of suicide, reaching out for help together (see some resources at the bottom of this page) and staying with them until you find someone is important. Identify the issues together – try and pinpoint the causes in their life that may be making them feel that way. Connect them with support people – friends, whanau, and professionals and find some ways they can cope in the future.

Here is a framework you can use that’s easy to remember. Simply A-E-I-O-U. These are key areas to try and cover. Approach them in whatever order feels natural.

Ask about their experience – direct is best! The person should be 100% clear what you’re asking.

  • “Have there ever been times when you’ve thought about killing yourself?”
  • “Do you mind if I sit and talk with you about it” 
  • “How recently was the last time you had those thoughts?”
  • “Are you thinking about ending your life at the moment?”

Ensure Safety – if there are current thoughts of suicide.

  • “This is important, and I think we need some extra help with this – we could try sending a text to Youthline or The Lowdown together?”
  • “What can I do to help you keep safe for now?”
  • “I’ll stay with you until we can find someone else to help.”

Identify Issues – explore what might have led to thoughts of suicide, and identify strengths.

  • “What are some of the things that make you feel that way/like ending your life?”
  • “Do things feel worse at home or at school, or somewhere else?
  • “Are there things in your life that give you hope?”
  • “It sounds like you were actually showing a lot of care toward the other person, even though they didn’t see it that way.”

Observe – look out for changes in activity/personality, and possible anchor points to life.

  • “So you mentioned you’ve been drinking a lot more recently / I’ve noticed you not coming around as much anymore / Sounds like you haven’t had much sleep this week / You gave away your card set – I know that meant a lot to you?”
  • “Who have been the most important people/places for you so far? What would it take to reconnect with/visit one of them?”

Utilise Supports – connect to support people, both personal and professional, identify coping strategies

  • “What are some things that have helped you keep chill/brighten your day in the past?”
  • “Is there anyone in your life that you trust to talk about this stuff with?”
  • “Let’s figure out what you might say to them when you see them next”

One of the characters in 13 Reasons Why says. “The way we treat each other and look out for each other, it has to get better.” No matter your opinions on the show, this is something we can agree on. And that change can start with us. If you are worried about someone close to you, reach out to them. And if you’re struggling, reach out. Make sure your friends know that you’re there for them. We can all do better – someone just has to take the first step. 

If you are struggling, you can reach out to any of these places for help:

For emergencies, dial 111
The Lowdown  – free txt 5626, team@thelowdown.co.nz
Youthline – free text 234, email talk@youthline.co.nz0800 376 633
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Whatsup – 0800 WHATSUP (0800 9428 787)
Healthline – 0800 611 116