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Your teens are probably watching 13 Reasons Why. Here's how to talk to them about it.

There are two levels of conversation in talking to teens about suicide.

One is for when they haven’t been exposed. “Suicide doesn’t need to be mentioned,” Kristen Douglas, the National Manager of HeadSpace School Support, told Mamamia.

This is about normalising feelings of distress – ‘everyone gets distressed sometimes, and sometimes it can feel like it’s all too much’. It’s a conversation about strategies for help-seeking and allowing them the capacity and room to open up.”

The second level, a completely different conversation, is for when teenagers have been exposed – someone they know has suicided; they’ve been exposed to suicide methodology; or someone they have a ‘perceived relationship’ with, like an actor or a social media friend, has taken their life.

For any teenager who has watched the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, the conversation will be at the second level. The exposure level.

“We are encouraging parents not to let young people see this show,” Douglas said. “For those who have seen it, now’s the time for a conversation about how the messaging is harmful and also unrealistic.”

The Headspace School Support program sends counsellors to schools around Australia after the community has been affected by suicide. The organisation has more than 50 counsellors and Douglas says “a lot of staff” are talking about this show and that “it’s doing more harm than good.”

Is 13 Reasons Why Helpful or Dangerous? Post continues below.

Teens are the group at highest risk of suicide contagion. It’s the phenomena that sees ‘clusters’ of suicides in certain areas. Once teenagers are exposed to suicide, they’re more likely to see it as a realistic option to deal with distress.

“Teenagers are impulsive, they have strong peer connections; and they feel distress acutely,” Douglas said.

“Even older teens have trouble understanding the finality of suicide. They think suicide can be ‘having the last laugh’. They don’t realise they won’t be here to see the aftermath.”

13 Reasons Why shows in graphic detail the way the main character, teenage girl Hannah Baker took her own life. The show – based on the 2007 novel of the same name – shows how she left 13 tapes to 13 different people; people who she blames for her suicide.

“The series delivers a huge level of exposure to suicide information,” Douglas said. “Exposure to suicide method; information; lead-up behaviours; actions directly before suicide; as well as blame and judgement, can all be damaging when we’re talking to teens about suicide.”

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13 Reasons Why has proven wildly popular. (Image: Netflix)

For parents wanting to talk to teens about suicide, particularly if they've watched 13 Reasons Why, Douglas has some recommendations:

Stick to the facts

"Keep it to accurate and factual information. Don't use too much emotion and don't fuel gossip," Douglas said. "It's natural teens will ask why someone suicided, but don't simplify it. If you don't know, you don't know."

"Putting suicide down to one indicator - such as bullying - is dangerous," Douglas said. "It can make suicide appear a viable solution to another teenager being bullied. In reality, there are often a whole lot of other factors involved."

13 Reasons Why is in the same vein: Hannah's death is put down to 13 very specific indicators. "Hannah's secrets are what killed her," her mum explains in the series. Real life is never so simple.

Avoid blame and judgement

But also acknowledge the feelings are normal...

"It's important to talk about grief with you teenager, and that feelings of anger and responsibility are normal if someone they've known has suicided," Douglas said. "Have this conversation openly, without judgement. Normalise these feelings and encourage your child to reach out. If not to you, than to someone else, for help."

As well as this, be careful using judgemental language that might imply the person who has suicided is to 'blame'.

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"If a young person is sitting there listening to people talk in a degrading and judgemental way about a person who's suicided, it creates a stigma around mental health," Douglas said. "The person listening will become less likely to seek help if they too are having suicidal thoughts."

In 13 Reasons Why, there is both blame: "If you're listening to this tape - you're one of the reasons my life ended", and judgement: "Hannah is a crazy drama queen who killed herself for attention."

Some of the Australian services offering mental health support. (Post continues after gallery.)

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Don't mention method

"It's normal for anyone to ask 'how' after hearing of a suicide death, but sharing these details presents danger in terms of both exposure and contagion," Douglas said.

"When a teenager hears about how it's done, suicide suddenly becomes an alternative method. It seems more possible and puts an idea in their head."

Graphic depictions of suicide method - like that seen in 13 Reasons Why - can be "extremely harmful, especially to young people".

Don't glorify the aftermath

This comes back to the understanding young people have around death. Anything retrospective - "That'll show the bullies" or "Look how many Facebook posts have been shared" - is damaging. It gives the impression suicide is a solution, something that delivers an outcome.

"Even kids as old as 16 or 17 can forget that they don't get to see the funeral," Douglas said. "They don't get to see the likes and the posts and the shares on social media."

Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker. (Source: Netflix.)

Use social media in a positive way

Teens talking on social media after exposure to suicide are often likely to divulge their own distress. A young person might tell their friends: "I am also being bullied and I feel the same". If you see this, don't shut it down, use it to provide help.

"If you see kids reaching out on social media, use the platform in a positive way," Douglas said. "Use it to share help-seeking strategies and practical information."

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Don't be dismissive

"Some kids will make one attempt at help-seeking, if that goes south, they will not reach out again," Douglas said.

"It's time we started treating mental health the same way we treat physical health. If your child has a rash for weeks on end, you would go to the doctor. If your child is angry or withdrawn for weeks on end, you should also go to the doctor."

Start the conversation

"This is not about scaring parents that they need to have these conversations with their teens," Douglas said. "But it's also important to acknowledge it. It can be just as damaging to never mention the 'S-word' and pretend like it doesn't exist."

There are different warning signs to look out for.

"If you're worried about you teen withdrawing, or not participating, talk to them and acknowledge their suffering. Don't say 'suck it up, you're 16 and you don't know anything about distress'," Douglas said.

Listen: The various complexities of reporting suicide in the media. (Post continues after audio.)

"Instead, make them understand you really care. That you're willing to go and sit with them in a Headspace clinic or with a GP and just listen to them talk. That you're there for them to support them."

If they are talking about 'ending things', this is a different conversation again.

"Don't be afraid to ask them if they've thought about hurting themselves. Try to find out when they've thought about doing it and if they have a plan for doing it," Douglas said.

"If the answers to these questions are 'yes', then it's time to take emergency action. When people have a time-frame and a method in mind, they are at the most acute risk. That's when you visit a GP or a clinic to find help."

Finally, never stop asking.

"Remember even adults can say 'I'm okay' when asked just the once," Douglas said.

"Be persistent, just in case one day they tell you; 'actually no, I'm not okay'. And then you go from there."

If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local headspace centre here or chat to them online,here. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

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