'Let your kid watch it,' Quebec teen says of controversial show 13 Reasons Why

Daybreak's Shari Okeke talks with a teen who says he "fell in love" with the Netflix series about suicide and says parents should not avoid the topic with their children.

'A lot of things that happen in the series happened at my school too,' says Andrew Ferguson, 14

Andrew Ferguson, 14, watched 13 Reasons Why and says parents should not avoid the topic of suicide. (Shari Okeke/CBC)

While mental health professionals are warning that the popular new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why could be dangerous for some youth, 14-year-old Andrew Ferguson has already watched all 13 episodes at his mother's suggestion.

"A lot of things that happen in the series happened at my school too, so it was really easy to connect with it," said Ferguson.

It's that instant connection with so many teens that has health professionals concerned.

The story focuses on the events that lead 17-year-old Hannah Baker, a fictional high school student, to take her own life. Prior to killing herself, Baker leaves audio tapes behind for her friends to listen to.

Educators, mental health professionals and some parents have expressed concern the program could glorify suicide.

"This is going to be really difficult, it's going to increase distress and emotional pain for kids who are already thinking about suicide," said Sharon Casey, a suicide prevention trainer and consultant with Suicide Action Montreal.

But Ferguson sees it differently.

Easy to relate

His Grade 8 class started reading 13 Reasons Why, a young adult novel by Jay Asher before watching the Netflix series of the same name, which was released in late March.

"I think (the series producers) are trying to make us feel what that person can feel before they commit suicide. I don't think they glamorize it that much," he said.

The Grade 8 student credits the series with helping him better understand the circumstances around a suicide last year at his high school.

13 Reasons Why, released on Netflix in March, is extremely popular with teens, prompting concerns from mental-health experts. (13 Reasons Why/Netflix)

"Just watching this series made me realize that some people go through some really rough things and you just never know what's actually going on in someone's life," he said.

This year the issue of teen suicide hit even closer to home when a friend sent Ferguson some messages expressing suicidal thoughts.

After quickly consulting his mother, he managed to convince the friend to call him. He kept his friend talking for hours, until about 3 a.m. That friend is now feeling better.

"It's someone really important in my life," Ferguson said. "It was really a stressful night."

'Parents could be closer to their kids'

Ferguson read the novel with his mother, Suzanne Bailey, and she suggested he watch the Netflix series, which they say is more graphic.

There are three episodes that have warnings about graphic scenes, two involving sexual assault and one a suicide.

"It was something hard to watch," Ferguson said about a sexual assault scene, adding that he would have appreciated the series just as much without the graphic scenes.

But that didn't sway his recommendation to parents about the merits of the series.

Suzanne Bailey (left) encouraged her son to watch 13 Reasons Why after having read the novel together. (Shari Okeke/CBC)

​"I would say, let your kid watch it....Have a discussion about it, see how your kid is really feeling," he said. 

Bailey says she's been open with her son about her own struggles as a teen who had a mother addicted to drugs and at times felt hopeless.

"But you just keep going ... and next thing you know there is hope, it's just a little further down," she said.

Ferguson said that, in the series, he was struck by the number of times Hannah's parents miss opportunities to talk to her in ways that might have helped.

"I think parents sometimes could be closer to their kids and talk to them more."

Teens need to talk

Youth workers agree that many teens are talking about 13 Reasons Why and need someone to listen.

"I think it's important for anyone who watches it to talk about their feelings and the messages they're taking away," said Emily Rill, a youth worker who meets regularly with teens.

Youth worker Emily Rill says teens need to talk about 13 Reasons Why after watching and they should not watch alone. (Submitted by Emily Rill)

Teens — and anyone who watches the program — can feel quite vulnerable afterwards, she said. Even she felt the need to talk after watching the series. 

"If I had children I wouldn't want my (teen) to watch" the three graphic episodes, Rill said 

"But since they are watching it ... it's important for them to have opportunities to talk about their feelings."  

For Ferguson, the series left him feeling determined to be "nicer with people."

"It wasn't one act that got (Hannah) to commit suicide it was the 13 little reasons that all put together were too much," he said.

"You never know what's going on in someone's life, so you always have to be careful."


Shari Okeke is writer/broadcaster for Daybreak on CBC Radio, and creator of Mic Drop, an award-winning CBC original podcast.