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Parents find TV show "13 Reasons Why" troubling

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Counsellor offers parishioners tips on how to talk about self-harm and suicide
By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Photo: P.J. Lewis.

The sudden, viral success of 13 Reasons Why has parents seeking expert advice on dealing with the suicide-themed show, and an Abbotsford parish provided that opportunity.

Clinical counsellor P.J. Lewis spoke to parishioners at St. Ann’s Church recently to offer them guidance on bringing up the topic of suicide and the wildly popular TV series with family members.

“What I think a lot of parents struggle with is: ‘What do I say?’ Well, it’s more about listening,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to have a conversation, to ask your teens if they have watched it in a non-judgmental, open kind of way,” said Lewis, whose primary clinical expertise is suicide and suicide prevention.

Event organizer Jody Garneau said it was important to talk about topics of suicide, self-harm, and sexual assault in light of the show’s content and popularity.

“You don’t go out with your friends for coffee and say, ‘My daughter is cutting, I don’t know what to do about it,’” Garneau said.

Many parents who attended the talk had not heard of the show or did not know how to talk to their children about it. “We wanted to give parents a heads-up and [talk about] when should you actually be concerned about talk of suicide or self-harm,” said Garneau.

13 Reasons Why, based on the novel of the same name, follows the story of a teenage girl who commits suicide and leaves a series of tapes explaining why she took her life.

“There are pros and cons with any type of mass media of very serious or triggering content,” PJ Lewis, co-founder of Lifted Counselling, told The B.C. Catholic.

Lewis said it’s a good idea to bring up these serious issues at school, church, and home, in a healthy way, without sensationalism. But he also has concerns about 13 Reasons Why. While trying to reduce stigma, the show gives all-too-graphic depictions that some teens may find triggering, the very reason psychiatric associations advise media not to report details of suicides. “It can give someone who had a vague idea about suicide a specific plan.”

He also worries that show, an engaging and “successful piece of cinema,” was released on Netflix all at once, leading some teens to watch entire seasons in one sitting without an adult around.

This “sensational overload” gives teens little time to process or discuss troubling scenes. “It’s often being watched in isolation from parents, caretakers, or responsible adults they can debrief with.”

He encouraged parents to ask their children what they think of the show and how scenes of suicide, self-harm, and assault affected them. “Don’t be afraid to ask, ‘have you ever been touched by or faced some of the issues in the show?’”

He also had advice for teens. “If someone ever tells you that they’re feeling suicidal and they ask you to keep it a secret, don’t. The most loving thing you can do is get them connected to somebody who has the skills and qualifications to help them.”

That might include talking to parents, teachers, or trusted adults, or calling an anonymous phone line and talking to counsellors about what to do.

He urged those who have seen 13 Reasons Why to take the time to talk about it with someone they trust. “So many teens feel themselves stressed and burdened and don’t know what to do about it.”

St. Ann’s is also running an Alpha parenting course, which addresses issues around sex and drug use in teens. “It’s good that we can support families in these difficult topics,” Garneau said.


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