Mental health facilities in the Puget Sound region are seeing a spike in youths seeking help, possibly the result of the new TV series “13 Reasons Why.”
The Netflix series tells the fictional story of a high school girl who takes her own life after being bullied at school. The storyline is built around tapes the main character, Hannah, leaves behind. In them, she blames others for her suicide and justifies it — the 13 reasons.
“Our emergency department has certainly seen kids who have suicidal ideation and have seen the show,” Molly Adrian, an attending psychologist at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, said Tuesday.
Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia saw record highs for April. The show was released March 31.
“We are seeing way more kids, 18 or younger, coming into our crisis services area,” said Sue Beall, director of behavioral health at the hospital.
In April, St. Peter saw 81 people under age 18, including 11 on Sunday. Normally, it gets that number in a week, Beall said. About 14 percent of those coming to the hospital require hospitalization.
While a couple of kids mentioned the show, intake personnel started asking a question about media exposure only on Monday — a response to the show, said Dr. George Chappell, medical director of behavioral health at St. Peter.
“We try not to ask leading questions,” he said. “There’s not much we can do with it if the kid has watched the show.”
Not all behavioral health facilities saw a bump from the show.
Tacoma-based MultiCare Health System, which just opened an adolescent health care facility in 2016, saw no effect from the program, spokeswoman Marce Edwards said.
“13 Reasons Why” has become a hot topic on middle and high school campuses. It’s also been the talk among mental health professionals.
“They feel blindsided by it,” said Shell St. Onge, a counselor with SoundCareKids in Olympia. The group offers grief counseling to youths.
Many say the show sends the wrong messages.
Teens coming to Children’s say they identify with incidents portrayed in the series: bullying, rape, drunken driving, slut shaming among them, Adrian said.
They’re also mimicking Hannah’s behavior, which includes self-harm.
“13 Reasons Why” is not turning healthy teens suicidal, experts say. Rather, it’s intensifying the condition in teens who already had mental health issues.
Those teens might have tried or considered suicide.
“This (show) is triggering that past response,” Adrian said.
About 90 percent of people who die by suicide have mental health conditions, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Those include major depression, mood disorders, substance use disorders, schizophrenia and personality disorders.
“13 Reasons Why” became the most tweeted-about TV show of 2017 in less than a month.
Even though the show is popular, Hannah and the adults in it are unrealistic, critics say. And because of the messages involved in “13 Reasons Why,” the consequences could be dire.
Katherine Langford, who plays Hannah, narrates the tapes like an actor reading a script. She is aware of her actions, clear-thinking and thoughtful.
“That’s strikingly different from what we have seen in a mental health crisis,” Adrian said.
Teens considering suicide are at a breaking point.
“They are in intolerable pain and are looking for an escape from that pain,” she said.
In “13 Reasons Why,” a school counselor doesn’t help Hannah. The other adults in her life are portrayed as ineffectual.
Adrian said that might create the notion that adults won’t understand or are unable to help a teen in crisis. In reality, school counselors go through extensive training in recognizing and responding to suicidal behavior and ideation.
St. Onge said she binge-watched the show last weekend.
“It’s not something I would recommend,” she said.
She takes issue with the lack of trusted and competent adults in the story.
“That is just wrong,” she said. “We work to save kids on a daily basis.”
IT’S A TALKER
“It’s definitely something in the consciousness of a lot of families, regardless if they’ve seen the show,” St. Onge said.
The program, its producers say, is intended to spark discussions about suicide.
“I think it has done that,” Adrian said.
The survivors in “13 Reasons Why” are burdened with guilt.
“Pointing the finger at one event or one person is neither helpful nor accurate,” Adrian said.
It’s critical that parents or guardians talk to adolescents if they notice changes in them, she said.
“Ask the person directly about suicide,” Adrian said. “It doesn’t plant the seed.”
Parents have resources to talk to teens and teens have resources to use on their own.
This week, Variety reported that Netflix will add more trigger warnings to the show. It already has several precautions and is rated for mature audiences.
One group reminded teens that the story is pure fiction.
“When you die you do not get to make a movie or talk to people anymore,” the JED Foundation, a group dedicated to preventing youth suicide, wrote in a list of talking points. “Leaving messages from beyond the grave is a dramatization produced in Hollywood and is not possible in real life.”
WARNING SIGNS OF SUICIDE
▪ A person talks about killing him or herself, of having no reason to live, of being a burden to others or feeling trapped, or of unbearable pain.
▪ The risk of suicide is higher if a behavior is new or has increased, especially if it’s related to a painful event, loss or change.
▪ Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
▪ Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online for materials or means.
▪ Acting recklessly.
▪ Withdrawing from activities.
▪ Isolating from family and friends.
▪ Sleeping too much or too little.
▪ Visiting or calling people to say goodbye.
▪ Giving away prized possessions.
▪ People considering suicide often display one or more of the following moods — depression, loss of interest, rage, irritability, humiliation or anxiety.
Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
▪ The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255): The free, 24/7 service can provide suicidal persons or those around them with support, information and local resources. Individuals can text “start” to 741741 to speak to a counselor.
▪ Pierce County Crisis Line: 253-396-5180.
▪ Comprehensive Life Resources: comprehensiveliferesources.org.
▪ Oasis Youth Center for LGBT youth: oasisyouthcenter.org.
▪ Forefront suicide prevention: intheforefront.org.
▪ Teen Link (teen to teen help): 866teenlink.org, 866-833-6546.
▪ Talking Points on “13 Reasons Why” for youths can be found at jedfoundation.org.