A hit show about a young woman's suicide has generated buzz over whether it glamorizes the ending of a life or helps foster healthy discussions on mental health. One thing Latinos agree on: It has gotten the conversation going.
The popular Netflix series ‘13 Reasons Why’announced Sunday it was returning for a second season. The show has stirred controversy among mental health professionals and several school districts around the country have warned parents about the effects that such an impactful show can have on children and teens.
Topics such as mental illness, suicide, and depression, which are at the center of the ‘13 Reasons Why’ series, are generally becoming less of a taboo. But in many Latino homes, families don’t openly talk about these topics.
“In my family, we don't discuss mental health and suicide as often as we should, it is viewed as a stigma in the Latino culture,” said Maggie Fuentes, a recent college graduate from Denver, Colorado, who has seen the series. “Oftentimes we perceive mental health as something negative and usually something that you don’t talk about," said Fuentes.
Compared to white and black high school students, Latinos reported more suicide attempts, including those resulting in injury or overdoses, and higher incidences of thinking or planning an attempt, according to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report. Latinas in grades 9-12 had reported significantly higher suicide attempts than black and white teen girls.
‘13 Reasons Why’ centers on a high school aged girl named Hannah. She is a teenage girl who encounters several instances of bullying which eventually lead her to commit suicide. But, before she dies, Hannah leaves 13 tapes with the reasons why she decided to end her life.
“I thought it was a good series because it really gave us adults and professionals a glimpse inside the world of what teens struggle with today,” said Dr. Ingrid Diaz, a New Jersey-based clinical psychologist who works with Latino adolescents and children.
Other professionals feel that the show is troubling because it does not provide a different option.
"Since the show is already here, it has to be used as a teachable moment. said Dr. Tami Benton, associate professor of psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, it glamorizes suicide and makes it seem as if there isn’t any other option, and that is really a problem.”
The actress Selena Gomez, one of the show's executive producers, told the Associated Press that the show hued very close to the book on which it's based — "a beautifully tragic, complicated yet suspenseful story and I think that's what we wanted to do.”
Does the show resonate with Latinos?
Lulu Guerrero, 25, is an actress who lives in New York City. She has watched the series and believes it's important for people to see it. While she doesn't think the show "glamorizes" suicide, she thinks the plot simplifies the situation.
“I don't agree with the story's build, like Hannah blaming everyone for her suicide. I don't think [suicide] is as black and white as the show makes it out to be,” she said.
When it comes to her own experience, Guerrero says her family was very open about discussing mental illness.
“When I started showing signs of depression at the age of 13, my parents took the necessary steps to get me help as soon as possible. I was very vocal and showing of my emotions and what I was going through, so I was lucky to have had such involved parents who reacted quickly. Not everyone is so lucky, as you learn from the show,” she said.
Juan Jaramillo, a student from Boston, Massachusetts, thinks mental health was stigmatized while he was growing up and was not discussed in his household.
“To be honest, I wish every Latino household should watch this show,” said the Colombia native. “People need to watch this show because it’s raw and the emotions it evokes can really put into perspective why mental health is so important and why we shouldn’t discourage our youth from seeking a professional and getting the tools to get better,” he said.
“In our culture, we are brought up thinking those tools don’t even exist,” said Jaramillo.
Navigating two worlds
Diaz says that many Latino teens in the U.S. live a dual experience which sometimes can make acceptance among their peers harder. She cites her own experience as a young pre-teen and not being able to do things that are seen as normal in the mainstream, such as sleepovers.
This dual existence of trying to fit in two different worlds, such as having immigrant parents and also trying to adapt to the mainstream culture, can cause struggles among teens who want to feel accepted, "a disparity in acceptance in the mainstream experience,” said Diaz, who talks about these issues when she travels around the country and does suicide assessment training.
Diaz sees this struggle among Latina girls more so than boys; in general Hispanic young men are generally given more freedom to blend in.
Dr. Luis H. Zayas, PhD, the Dean and Robert Lee Sutherland Chair in Mental Health and Social Policy at the University of Texas at Austin is the author of the book Latinas Attempting Suicide: When Cultures, Families and Daughters Collide. It focuses on why young Latinas have reported higher rates of suicide attempts.
Zayas says that apart from a teen's individual development, clashes between cultures at home (whether they come from a first, second or third generation immigrant family) and family dynamics come into play.
“Sometimes immigrant families have more restrictions for their daughters,” said Zayas, “such as how a lady should act, how she should be more family-oriented and she also might have more restrictions than her male siblings."
In his research, Zayas also found that peers were not as large an influence on teens and their suicide attempts compared to their white counterparts.
Though ‘13 Reasons Why’ is centered on a group of teenagers and their experiences, it might not be the same experiences that some young Latinos are facing.
“We have to ask the question whether Latinas can identify with the show and whether the character's life story resonated with the ‘average’ Latina experience in the U.S., which also has a lot of different factors," said Zayas.
Opening up, getting help
The takeaway from shows like ‘13 Reasons Why,’ say experts, is that parents should have an open dialogue with their children about mental health.
“I watched the series with my 14-year-old daughter. I saw it as an educational moment about pivotal experiences in a teenager’s life,” said Diaz. “Parents are afraid of the taboo and about talking about it because it can give them ‘ideas,’ but the truth is that children already know about this from social media and their friends, but they should know that they can come and talk to you about it, that you [parents] are a resource to them. They should know that suicide is never the answer.”
Zayas says children should understand where their parents are coming from, and why they were raised the way they were, and parents should understand what it's like for their own children.
“It’s about them trying to understand each other’s perspectives. It’s about building bridges,” he said.
Diaz says there is a stigma across all races and nationalities — including many Latino households —that problems or mental health issues should be only handled inside the family.
And Latinos who are very religious, especially immigrants, may not feel comfortable talking openly about mental illness. According to Diaz, many prefer to rely on their clergy before seeking professional help so they are not seen as ‘lacking faith.’
But issues surrounding mental health are legitimate medical issues.
“I think human beings are spiritual, physical and emotional. You have to combine all three aspects of that when you are healing, not just one,” said Diaz.
Teens and adults, say experts like Diaz and Zayas, should not be afraid to seek help.
In New York City, the organization Comunlife began a program called ‘Life is Precious,’ that helps prevent suicide in young Latinas by providing counseling, academic support and therapy. In 2016, they helped 189 Latinas in the New York City area get access to their services.
In response to the outpouring of opinions and concerns surrounding the show, Netflix announced it would add more content warnings to the series. It also created a site, 13ReasonsWhy.info, "a global resource center that provides information about professional organizations that support help around the serious matters addressed in the show,” according to their press release.
If a teen or adult is experiencing suicidal thoughts, they should reach out to a health care professional, especially one with which they are comfortable. If no one is available, anyone can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, which is open 24 hours, seven days a week.