The second season of 13 Reasons Why is being released by Netflix on Friday, May 18th. The first season followed the fictional story of a teenager named Hannah Baker who died by suicide. Hannah left behind 13 audio recordings explaining the reasons why she took this action.
It is unknown at this time if prevention efforts have been integrated more effectively into the second season. Mental health professionals continue to voice their concerns about the impact this program is having on young audiences, especially those who are experiencing emotional distress and may consider suicide to be an option. However, an international study demonstrated that most viewers (including youth and their parents) thought the show was more beneficial than it was harmful by bringing attention to issues that are often harder to discuss. Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, one of the nations top child psychiatrists and a close friend of Youth ERA, counters this study in an op-ed that you can find here.
There are some things viewers should be aware of before clicking play on 13 Reasons Why. First, Hannah's story does not reflect what prevention professionals know about youth suicide. Her suicide was extensively planned despite the fact that the vast majority of suicides appear to result from an impulse and not the desire for revenge. Furthermore, most who die by suicide do not leave explanations or notes behind for their loved ones to find.
Of particular concern is the message that if a young person takes their life, this should lead to a search for those who are to blame. There are always multiple factors involved in anyone's decision to attempt suicide and assigning blame is exceptionally unhelpful for the recovery of those impacted.
One limitation of the show is that it focuses solely on the mental health of Hannah, a heterosexual cis female. While acknowledging the importance of all awareness brought to youth mental health, it is important also to recognize that many youth who experience these feelings are dealing with additional issues that deserve the same sort of representation. These factors include but are not limited to toxic masculinity, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, high stakes testing and performance standards, etc.
An international study conducted following the release of the first season found that young viewers and their parents wanted further guidance on how to address the issues and questions raised by the series. This article intends to provide just that.
The guidance provided by this article is grounded in both positive psychology and trauma-informed care. Trauma-informed care gives insight for when life gets tough, whereas positive psychology, (also referred to as the “science of happiness”) gives insight into strategies people can use to live happy, empowered, and fulfilling lives.
1. Connections with trusted adults (duh).
Just like the phrase “it takes a village” has proven true time and time again, so has Youth ERA's support for the research behind Search Institute’s 40 Assets. In the “Support” category of Search Institute’s compilation, one Asset reads “Other adult relationships—Young person receives support from three or more non-parent adults.”
There are many things we still don't know when it comes to how best to support youth when they are going through difficult times. However, we don’t need research to show that the presence of stable relationships with caring and trusted adults has the potential to impact a young person’s life immensely. The benefit of positive adult-youth connections is something we have seen over and over again.
There are certain situations where a young person not wanting to discuss what is bothering them with a parent or guardian is inevitable. In addition to providing a positive and stable relationship with the youth we support, we also seek to ensure that they have one or more connections with other trusted and caring adults that they can turn to in times of need.
2. Mindfulness (no yoga pants required).
You might cringe when you hear "mindfulness," a term that is often touted by individuals who didn’t have to Google the term “Hot Yoga”. But remember, like any parent or teacher struggling to help a young person knows, whether something is current or popular doesn't much matter when it comes to finding something that actually helps. The practice of mindfulness can be a powerful tool for young people hoping to achieve calm and focus. Research has shown that young people who practice mindfulness experience improvements in their health, well-being, social skills, self-regulation, and academic performance.
There are lots of free websites you can use to empower your youth through the practice of mindfulness. Check out the Headspace app, a great tool we use at Youth ERA to help our youth practice mindfulness. We also have an article about mindfulness you can check out to learn more.
3. De-escalation and pro-flossing skills.
Our society treats the notion of prevention with a similar disdain as flossing; we know it works, but we'll do it "next time." Preventing stressful events isn’t always possible but understanding how we respond to those events is essential (just like flossing).
It can be helpful to think of the stress cycle like an arch. Before we feel stress, we each have a baseline emotional wellness. Then, a triggering event occurs that leads to increased agitation. If de-escalation does not occur at this time, agitation can escalate into an outburst. Then there is a period of recovery that follows. Ideally, both you and your youth will be able to identify either when a trigger event has occurred or when the stress is escalating so that you can de-escalate the situation before an outburst occurs.
Discuss de-escalation strategies in moments when everyone is calm, especially if your youth tends to trigger easily. Find a quiet place to problem-solve with your youth where you can identify an approach they think will work. When attempting to de-escalate, always remember to remain calm, while still being aware of the situation from a safety and escape perspective. Be as non-threatening as possible by avoiding "TACOS" (Threatening, Arguing, Challenging, Ordering, or Shame). Try reflecting back what your youth is saying without judgment and realize that they may be incapable of thinking clearly at this time. Calming is your only goal.
4. ERROR: problem-solving & critical thinking skills cannot be found
After reviewing a youth leadership curriculum that Youth ERA created, a researcher asked, “Why are you educating youth about pyramid schemes?” From our position on the front lines of youth peer work, we get an early look at some of the incoming trends; many of them troublesome. While the media continues talking about Tide-Pods and avocado toast, there are issues like pyramid schemes economically preying on youth that are going unnoticed. What makes it worse is that most youth haven't been exposed to the problem-solving and critical thinking skills they need to make educated decisions about these problems.
Parents who hope to raise their youth to be independent should give them opportunities to make their own choices, especially as they get closer to the magic age of 18. In fact, providing youth with some level of decision-making power while living at home serves as an invaluable opportunity to celebrate failures as teaching moments, where they can learn, grown, and move forward.
Adult allies, parents, and others can assist youth as they gain the skills necessary to resolve problem situations independently. One opportunity to practice this is revisiting situations where someone treated them poorly, or they accidentally lost control and were hurtful to someone else. We recommend the "Think Things Through" approach, where providers encourage youth to ask the following three questions when reviewing a difficult encounter: (1) What actually happened? (2) What is my goal? (3) What powerful positive actions could I take that utilize my strengths? It is essential that the youth follows up by asking: Is each action in accord with my values? What is the best first choice I can make? If my first choice doesn't work, what else can I do?
Empowerment doesn’t fix everything, but often adult allies can help youth escape vicious rumor cycles, gossip, and bullying by taking the time to problem-solve.
5. Growth mindset.
You can cultivate a growth mindset by encouraging youth and helping them believe that they can develop their talents through hard work, useful strategies, and input from others. Youth with a fixed mindset typically believe that their talents and abilities are innate and as such don't require much work. Typically, those with a fixed mindset achieve less than those who are focused on using their skills and resources to accomplish their goals. Often, they are more willing to try new strategies, and more resilient when they fail.
Having a growth mindset can also be helpful in distressing situations. Youth who recognize and believe that they can change, others can change, and situations can change, are much more likely to think things through and focus on figuring out how to proceed in times of distress. Believing that circumstances are fixed can contribute to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Make sure to acknowledge your youth’s efforts, especially those in response to challenging situations.
6. Keeping your personal power.
The Rational Emotive Thinking approach recognizes that people do not get distressed by what happens to them, but by how they think about what has happened to them. As the Roman philosopher, Epictetus said, “It is not what happens to you. It is how you react to it that matters.”
Within this thinking is the A-B-C model. "A" is the Adversity or negative situation. "B” are the beliefs or what we think about the situation. "C" are the consequences. If our beliefs are fixed and negative, then the consequences will be negative. However, if we can change our beliefs, then the adversity will not result in negative consequences.
From this perspective, we can empower youth to respond to any negativity or hurtful behavior directed at them in a way that maintains their personal power. Encourage your youth to repeat the following, “I choose not to let another person control how I respond or think about myself.”
7. Life Pro Tip: Stand tall...like a lobster?
In his book “12 Rules for Life," Dr. Jordan Peterson observes that lobsters who are higher in their social hierarchy tend to have better posture. Young people who stand with “presence” are more likely to be perceived as successful and competent and less likely to be treated poorly. Merely adopting a physical pose that indicates personal power creates the impression that you are powerful. Try picturing someone who believes that they are a failure and someone who believes that they're a success. How do they present themselves differently?
Try this for yourself and encourage your youth to do the same. Imagine feeling powerless and let your physical presence reflect that feeling. Now shift to feeling strong and empowered and watch how your posture changes. Help your youth stand and walk with personal power.
8. Kindness (no monkey-business).
The biologist and primatologist Frans B. M. de Waal observed that primates who were kind would live longer and be more effective leaders. Engaging in kindness is shown to promote happiness and overall well-being. When young people reach out and are kind to others, it helps them feel good about themselves. Being kind also results in more thoughtful responses and is helpful for forming positive peer relationships. Research has also shown that young people who engage in a consistent, daily practice of being kind to others, are more likely to be accepted by their peers. For young people who have difficulties forming positive relationships or are being mistreated, learning to be kind can be hugely beneficial for improving their situation.
Reaching out and being kind is also an act of self-compassion. There are often too many pressures on young people, and they can be made to feel like failures for not measuring up. Encourage your youth to be kind to themselves. Encourage them to reach out and be kind to others, including those who are outside of their social group. Hold them accountable and ask, “How did you reach out and show kindness to others today? How did it make you feel? How were you kind to yourself?"
9. The power of three letters: BFF
Friendships help young people develop emotionally and build critical social skills, including how to practice effective communication, teamwork, and problem-solving. Through friendships, young people gain an empathetic understanding of how others feel. They practice controlling their emotions and responding to the feelings of others. They develop the ability to think through and de-escalate challenging situations as they arise. Ask yourself if you are creating sufficient opportunities for youth to meet with friends and engage in fun activities? Consider putting more time and resources into opportunities for your youth to build and maintain positive friendships.
10. Build your strengths (yes, we all have them!)
Today’s competitive world creates environments where kids are ranked and pitted against each other before they can understand what is happening. The scouting process for collegiate football can begin when children are as young as nine. These competitive arenas can lead youth to internalize even minute failures resulting in low confidence and diminished self-worth. To counter this cultural shift, we need to create opportunities for youth to identify their strengths, put them into practice, fail with compassion and develop into stronger more resilient adults.
One of the most impactful things young people can do is build character strengths. The VIA Institute on Character has identified the following 24 character strengths: creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective and wisdom, bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest, love, kindness, social intelligence, teamwork, fairness, leadership, forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-control, appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality. You and your youth can complete a character strengths inventory here.
Help your youth identify and build upon their strengths, especially character strengths. Encourage them to make a daily effort to use their strengths, especially in stressful or challenging situations. Every evening encourage them to ask themselves, “What did I do today that I am proud of?” Celebrate your youth’s strengths and accomplishments even when they seem small.
11. Goal setting and action planning
The power of goal-setting is unparalleled in the world of personal development. A young person's ability to set realistic goals enables them to take control of their life. There is also evidence to support the use of goal-setting and action planning to reduce anxiety and depression symptoms.
There are several key steps to effective goal-setting, but the first is to set goals that are motivating and have personal value (and put them in writing!). It's critical that you allow your youth to drive the process and avoid reminding them to be “realistic,” this can leave your youth feeling like their goals aren’t attainable, or you don't believe in them. Instead, try helping them break down the steps they need to take to achieve their ultimate goal. Try to make sure that their goals are specific, relevant, attainable within a particular time, and measurable in some way.
After a youth sets their goals, you'll need to help them create an action plan. This requires thinking things through to identify the steps necessary for goal achievement, and then putting those steps into action to ensure that the goal is met. It may be necessary to revisit the action plan along the way.
12. Self-care gone viral
There is a common misconception that self-care is just a “dumb fad,” but in all actuality, self-care is the most helpful practice that people don't realize they're doing. Simply put, self-care describes the positive actions a person takes to cope with stressful or difficult situations relating to their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Each of us has a different way to relax, have fun, or just take time to themselves. Self-care isn’t about neglecting our responsibilities. To be successful, we need to practice self-care as a part of a balanced life. A powerful form of self-care for many is spending time in nature, an act that has shown to improve memory, restore mental energy, improve concentration, sharpen thinking, foster creativity, and reduce stress. Encourage your youth to make time for themselves and participate in positive activities that they enjoy.
13. The hideous strength of...gratitude?
“Does anyone else get annoyed when you hold the door for someone, and they don’t say thank you?” This was a comment left on the Youth ERA Facebook page from one of our youth. When we express gratitude for the good things we feel happy, and in most cases, more good things start to come our way. Gratitude makes us more resilient, strengthens relationships, and promotes forgiveness. Young people who practice gratitude regularly report feeling increased life satisfaction, experiencing more positive emotions, and feeling more connected to their communities. Exploring the subject of Gratitude is sometimes enough to change a person's whole perspective on life. Create opportunities for your youth to practice exploring of gratitude in their daily lives.