Teen Suicide Prevention Expert Jeff Yalden Weighs In on “13 Reasons Why”

The media has been abuzz about the controversial Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” based on a young adult novel of the same name by author Jay Asher – the jarring tale of high school student who takes her own life, leaving behind a handful of cassette tapes detailing her reasons for doing so and implicating others in her final decision.

The series has put many schools, parents and other groups in panic mode, with some calling for the show’s immediate withdrawal from Netflix – a knee-jerk reaction in anticipation of a possible rash of copycat suicides.

One such reaction came from Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute, in a recent interview with Savannah Guthrie on The Today Show.

“It’s only a matter of time when we will start seeing more suicide attempts among teenagers and more completions,” he said. “The responsible thing to do is to remove the program immediately, not to keep promoting it.”

It should come as no surprise that youth motivational speaker Jeff Yalden’s email and social media accounts have been blowing up with requests for comments on the show.

Yalden has spent 25 years in the trenches of teen mental health and suicide prevention. He has spoken to more than 4000 audiences in all 50 states, every province in Canada and 49 countries. Along the way, he has grieved with and counseled hundreds of families suffering from the losses of their beloved children and has presented suicide prevention workshops in communities across the country. This experience puts him in the unique position to offer a valuable perspective on this situation – one that has long weighed on his heart.

“Mental health professionals are afraid of copycat suicides,” he said. “While I do agree about potentially losing more teens to suicide, I think the show is sharing truth and will force us to talk and bring more programs into schools and communities. With more education and help, we can lessen the stigma attached to mental health and reduce the number of completed suicides.”

“13 Reasons Why” might just be the wake-up call society needs to bring teen suicide into the light of day.

“It’s alarming to a lot of people, because a lot of people don’t realize that kids are doing this every day. The bottom line is that parents need to be more invested in who their kids are, what their surroundings are, what they say and what they are doing,” he said.

According to Yalden, kids are growing up much faster today for many reasons including the media, music, targeted marketing and social media, which potentially keeps them connected to the lifestyles and opinions of their peers for extended periods of time. Social media opens many kids up to the possibility of cyberbullying, a very definite factor in many teen suicides.

Yalden understands the reasons for the public outcry, but teen suicide has been a constant over the years. He also commends Netflix for including trigger warnings before the show’s two most graphic episodes and the fact that the company will be adding an additional viewer warning card before the first episode as an extra precaution for those about to start the series.

“As a nation, I think we are in denial about how serious this is. If we don’t talk about it, we’re not going to be able to make a change,” he said, adding that we need to get comfortable about being uncomfortable about mental health and teen suicide in America today.

Yalden sees youth mental health as an economic issue that needs to be addressed, and perhaps “13 Reasons Why” can be a catalyst for change.

“We need our mental health community and our government to really step up and really provide the right outlets and put the right people in place to be able to answer the cries of our youth.”

He has already heard from counselors and mental health professionals who say that kids are opening up about mental health and teen suicide as a result of the show.

“Let’s remember that, ultimately – this is what we want to do. We want to get kids to ask for help – and because now kids are asking for help, we’re putting blame on this TV show, when the reality is that this TV show is bringing people to ask for help,” he said.

Yalden has said that the symptoms for suicide are very similar to that of depression, and he has a three-point theory about teen suicide:

1)      I am alone.

2)      I am a burden and a liability to other people.

3)      I have the desire for suicide.

Put these symptoms together and you have a lethal or near-lethal attempt to take one’s life.

The point is to make sure a child never feels alone or they are a burden to other people.

“If a child has the desire for suicide, that’s a major red flag. We need to get that child help – and saying something to a responsible adult can save a life.”

Even though speaking up may be difficult in some cases, sometimes you must choose the difficult right over the easy wrong.  This is a responsibility that everyone has.  Ultimately, saying something can save a life.

“If that means going against a relationship of friendship – going against trust – it’s the right thing to do because, in the end, you could be saving a person’s life.”

And “13 Reasons Why” is bringing a much-needed awareness to this heartbreaking situation.

“A lot of schools are being forced to send out this emergency email to all of the parents because they are getting feedback from the community and parents that the kids have already watched the show,” Yalden said.

From his perspective, the buzz is a good thing.

“What I like about the show is that it’s ruffling feathers and making people uncomfortable. It is forcing people to now recognize and start talking about mental health and teen suicide.”

Indeed, Yalden has been in the trenches of teen mental health and teen suicide for more than two decades. He has read too many letters and met with too many hurting families. He has removed guns from homes and has helped families, students and friends remove belongings from school lockers.

“I might go against many people, but I think this is a great show. Of course, I see the cause for alarm, but I can also see the indirect situational and behavioral clues that we teach our young people to really look out for,” he said.

Yalden wants middle schools and high schools to be required to watch and discuss this show in detail, with counselors and mental health professionals included in the discussion.

“After all, our youth are the first line of defense in saving the lives of their peers,” he said.

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Author:Roger Yale

Roger Yale is a longtime contributor to McClatchy Newspapers’ The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, focusing on stories about the people who make the Grand Strand awesome, including teen motivational speaker Jeff Yalden. He was voted Story of the Year winner four times by readers of The Sun News’ sister publication, Weekly Surge. Roger is the parent of adult twins. His son is a United States Marine and his daughter is currently involved in marketing for Broadway productions in New York City. He spent many years as a single father, and he believes that the experience was something to relish – and the bond he forged with his twins remains strong. Roger is also a working musician. For more about Roger, visit his blog: www.rogeryale.wordpress.com

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