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In light of ‘13 Reasons Why,’ how to talk to teens about suicide

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The silver lining of Netflix’s wildly popular and troubling television series “13 Reasons Why” is that the show is turning the subject of teen suicide into a national conversation, said Lisa Horowitz, a pediatric psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Concerned parents, nurses, teachers and mental health professionals continued that conversation April 27 at the Virginia Hills Center in Alexandria during an event titled, “Detecting and preventing suicide risk among youth.” The event was hosted by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Service Board. 

In Virginia, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-34, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Three times as many people die by suicide than by homicide. NIMH has found that more than 90 percent of suicide attempts among youths are unknown to their parents. 

While suicide is a relatively rare occurrence, said Horowitz, “the ripple effects are endless.” Fortunately, suicide risk can be identified and suicide prevented, she said. 

Many know the warning signs that people considering suicide might exhibit: sleeping too little or too much, increased use of alcohol or drugs, extreme mood swings or talking about feeling hopeless or trapped, among others. But an important and extremely underutilized way to find out if someone is considering suicide is to ask, said Horowitz. 

Parents worry that asking a teen if they are suicidal might put the idea in their heads. But at least four studies have refuted that notion, she said. And the ask could saves lives. 

In her work, Horowitz and her colleagues have come up with a simple suicide screening consisting of five questions. She hopes that pediatricians and other health care providers will start screening their young patients during visits, as a majority of youth who commit suicide visit a health care provider just months before their death.

Dr. Ted Abernathy, a Richmond physician, decided to implement the screenings in his practice. As a patient and parent would arrive, the parent was given a slip of paper explaining the screening. Then a nurse would ask the teen questions in private. Out of 231 patients, 29 of them — 13 percent —  screened positive for risk of suicide. They learned of several patients who had previous suicide attempts and were able to add that information into the child’s medical record. One teen was having suicidal thoughts at that moment and the doctor connected him with mental health resources. 

Doctors can and should play a special role in preventing teen suicide, said Horowitz, but “I think everyone can be a bridge to getting a child help.” One way to do that is to talk to teens about the widely viewed “13 Reasons Why.” In fact, according to The Guardian, New Zealand recently banned those under 18 from watching the show without an adult present. 

The series, based on a book written by Jay Asher, follows Clay Jensen after the suicide of his friend and crush Hannah Baker. Her suicide note was 13 cassette tapes that explain the 13 reasons, or  people, who led her to commit suicide. Mental health professionals worry the compelling, often graphic high school drama may lead vulnerable teens to romanticize suicide. 

The Jed Foundation, a national youth suicide prevention nonprofit, provides talking points to counter misconceptions that may arise because of the show, for example that someone can be responsible for someone else’s suicide or that treatment such as therapy or medication is ineffective. According to the list, “Suicide is never a heroic or romantic act. Hannah’s suicide (although fictional) is a cautionary tale, not meant to appear heroic and should be viewed as a tragedy.” 

Get help

Anyone facing an emotional or mental health crisis or having thoughts of suicide can call the Suicide Prevention Alliance of Northern Virginia at 703/527-4077 or text “CONNECT” to 85511.

To attend a six-week suicide loss support group at Haven of Northern Virginia, Inc. call 703/941-7000 or email havenofnova@verizon.net. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017