Either You Talk to Your Kid About Suicide or 13 Reasons Why Will

Netflix’s hit 13 Reasons Why is stirring a national conversation about mental health.

An adaptation of a young adult novel by Jay Asher, the series follows the aftermath of a high school student’s suicide. Before taking her own life, Hannah creates 13 cassette tapes, each one dedicated to a person who somehow played a part in her death by suicide, causing guilt and paranoia between members of the selected group.

There are endless blogs, tweets, articles and opinions on every possible side of the show. Any conversation about mental health can be productive for parents and kids. However, if we’re going to build longer lasting change in our society we will need people to talk about mental health more proactively than when a hit series airs. We also need to move beyond the connection to despair and start building skills in teens so they can be better prepared to address the challenges they face.

The predominant theme with most mental health flavors of the month is that teens connect to the darker emotions the characters are experiencing and adults want teens to know that life doesn’t have to be that way. There are other options. This dynamic can often cause conflict in homes, but with any conflict comes opportunity to change.

Instead of getting caught up on what happens to who and why and when in this series. Try talking to your kids about the longer-term impact of mental health and emotional development. Connecting with your son or daughter will go a lot further than fighting over why they like a particular show.

Here are some tips to consider:

—Model the mental health behavior you want to see in your kids. Whether you choose to watch this series with your kids or not, the example you set at home does truly matter. Tell your kids how you take care of yourself today. Show them how you manage your mental health by exercising, talking to someone, asking for help, speaking honestly about your emotions, or doing something you enjoy. Kids learn a little from what we say, but more from what we do.

—Breakdown the barriers that prevent talking about mental health. In situations like this we tend to get lost with diagnoses or behavior. For most people step one is getting past the reasons they don’t want to seek help. When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with anger control problems and psychotic features at age 16, I also had access to optimal mental health care. I wasn’t compliant with that care because I felt stupid, weak, ashamed and didn’t think it would work. My mental health didn’t change until I got past those barriers. Let your kid know that it’s okay to not always be okay.

—Compare mental health to physical health. We don’t only encourage people who have cancer, diabetes, heart problems or other issues to seek help and tell everyone else that they only need to go to a doctor when they have a disease. However, we do tend to tell people they should seek help for their mental health only when they’ve completely broken down. This isn’t working. Mental health isn’t having a problem; it’s how you address all of the problems in your life. When someone takes care of their physical health they eat right, workout and take care of their body. For someone to take care of their mental health they need to think about how they cope, communicate, what their relationships are like and take care of their minds.

—Listen. Being a parent isn’t easy. There are all kinds of threats and dangers and you want to protect your kids. Being a kid isn’t easy either. If your kids connect to this series it’s vital to listen to them and understand why. Only through understanding their perspective will they feel heard and trust your perspective on the show.

Ask questions like…

What did you connect to in the show?
Is there anything else you want to know more about?
What would you say to Hannah?
What do you think could have been done to get Hannah support?
What would you do if you knew one of your peers was struggling?
What kind of support do you need when you are struggling?

—Normalize mental health. The earlier you can start having conversations about how you feel and how your kids feel the better the communication will be. It’s never too late to start. You might get a lot of eye rolls in the beginning. Be persistent with talking about why thoughts, feelings and emotions are important. You want to normalize the concept that mental health is for everyone instead of isolating conversations solely about mental illness to help change the dynamic in any household.

If your teen knows someone who may be having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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