Could Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why promote better mental health initiatives in schools? [opinion]

The controversy surrounding the Netflix Original Series 13 Reasons Why has blown up over the past couple of months, with thousands of Facebook users taking to their keyboards to either praise or condemn the show.

For those who have yet to see it, 13 Reasons Why explores the events leading up to the suicide of 15-year-old Hannah Baker. The series includes a graphic scene of Hannah painfully taking her own life in the bathtub.

13 Reasons Why is far from a perfect representation of mental illness – many argue that the show glosses over or even glorifies mental illness and suicide – but whether you love it or hate it, the outcome remains the same: people are talking about mental health and suicide prevention.

By promoting conversations about mental health, and exposing viewers to the harsh realities of ill-equipped school counsellors, 13 Reasons Why has challenged existing stigma surrounding mental health issues.

By introducing these types of media into pop culture, the existence of mental health issues become acknowledged and de-stigmatised within communities.

Why is this important?

According to a joint report from Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute, nearly 1 in 4 Australian teenagers meet the criteria for “having a probable serious mental illness”.

A recent study from Headspace and the National Union of Students has also found that 1 in 3 Australian tertiary students think about self-harm or suicide.

By acknowledging and de-stigmatising mental health issues, we as a community can open the floor for educated discussions, learn to recognise signs of depression, and save more lives.

High schools and tertiary institutions can use media as a tool to engage students and staff when discussing mental health, disprove stereotypes and highlight the importance of seeking help if needed.

In 13 Reasons Why, the failure of the school counsellor, Mr. Porter, to reach out and provide help to Hannah when she sought it should provide current and future counsellors with an understanding of how not to treat a teenager battling depression.

Students can also be encouraged to educate themselves on mental health awareness, learn to look for symptoms, and find out how to ask for help.

In response to research indicating that teenagers prefer to share their problems with peers, Mental Health First Aid Australia developed a course specifically aimed at teenagers to encourage them to support their peers.

After completing the course, participants had reduced stigmatised attitudes, improved knowledge of mental health problems and their treatment, increased confidence in providing mental health first aid to a peer, and increased help-seeking intentions.

So, it’s up to schools to decide whether they should force their students to analyse Macbeth’s soliloquies and memorise Pythagoras’s theorem, or teach staff and students to potentially save lives.

I know which I’d pick.

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