DOGGED by controversy for vivid depictions of suicide and rape on screen, Netflix has defended 13 Reasons Why, giving the teen drama its "unflinching" support.
Last week, youth mental health organisation Headspace warned that it had a spike in calls and emails relating directly to the TV show. But a psychiatrist involved with the series said 13 Reasons Why actually provided a platform to talk about these issues more honestly.
13 Reasons Why is based off a popular young adult novel and the rest of the title is basically " … why I killed myself". Its main character is a teenager who commits suicide but before she dies, she records 13 cassette tapes and sends them to those she deems "responsible" for her decision.
The series has been accused of "glorifying suicide" and for its graphic and bloody portrayal of the act itself. Headspace warned that the show "exposes viewers to risky suicide content and may lead to a distressing reaction by the viewer".
At the top of those concerns is the risk of contagion, the idea that someone with suicidal ideation could copy what they see.
However, the other side of the conversation is that a show like 13 Reasons Why is an opportunity to talk about taboo subjects, giving kids, at-risk or otherwise, a platform to engage with their parents or others in their community.
Stanford's Dr Rona Hu was a psychiatric consultant on 13 Reasons Why. She argued that the show can help facilitate these important discussions.
"It's good to talk with your teens about what they read, what they watch, the music they listen to and, of course, what's happening in their lives and with their friends," she told news.com.au.
"Sometimes the things that are not directly related to them are less intimidating than talking about their real lives. One conversation can open up into another. A teen who was witnessed bullying might be able to open more easily in talking about a fictional character."
Dr Hu said she was one of several mental health experts who were consulted throughout the writing and production process on how to execute the issues the TV show tackled which also included bullying, sexual identity and domestic abuse.
"As a psychiatrist I made suggestions to reflect the many experiences of young people that I have seen in my clinical work. There's so much stigma and shame in talking about mental health issues. There was a real desire to raise awareness, let suffering teens know they're not alone, and help start honest conversations.
"Suicide is such an important problem and we hope that by shining a light on this important topic, it will hopefully facilitate some lifesaving discussions."
The sensitive nature of 13 Reasons Why's content was obvious to Netflix from the start.
A Netflix spokesperson said: "We have been mindful of both the show's intense themes and the intended audience. We support the unflinching vision of the show's creators, who engaged the careful advice of medical professionals in the scriptwriting process."
There are also graphic content warnings before the start of the last episodes which depicted particularly stark imagery of rape and suicide while the series also had a website with links to resources and a 30-minutes behind-the-scenes special which discussed why it chose such a direct approach.
Series creator Brian Yorkey said on that special: "We wanted it to be painful to watch because we wanted to be very clear that there is nothing in any way worthwhile about suicide."
Netflix research found that 74 per cent of parents have watched a TV show popular with their teenage children so they could talk about it with their kids. It also found that 82 per cent of parents and 61 per cent of teens said that watching the same TV shows could help start a dialogue about tough topics.
Dr Hu said that while more parents than kids were open to that kind of discussion, there are techniques to bridge the gap between generations.
"Teens can be worried their parents will criticise or judge them, so try listening first without judging. Questions without yes/no or 'right' answers are less intimidating. A good open-ended conversation starter could be, 'If you could talk with one of the characters, who would it be, and what would you say?'"
13 Reasons Why stars Australian actor Katherine Langford, Dylan Minette and Kate Walsh and counts among its executive producers, Selena Gomez.
If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Headspace on 1800 650 890 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.
Continue the conversation on Twitter with @wenleima.
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