Suicide prevention advocate sees opportunity in buzz around 13 Reasons Why

A suicide prevention advocate in Thunder Bay, Ont., is welcoming a new television show that has been widely criticized for making suicide glamorous.

Young people are craving dialogue about suicide, Scott Chisholm says

Suicide prevention advocate Scott Chisholm says the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has lots of young people wanting to talk about suicide, which he sees as a good thing. (Scott Chisholm)

A suicide prevention advocate in Thunder Bay, Ont., is welcoming a new television show that has been widely criticized for making suicide glamorous.

The Canadian Mental Health Association and the Centre for Suicide Prevention both issued statements recently raising concerns about the way the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why simplifies the causes of suicide and makes it seem like a viable or logical option.

Scott Chisholm, the founder of Left Behind by Suicide and the Collateral Damage project — both aimed at removing the stigma around suicide — agrees the show violates established media guidelines on the topic, but said it also presents an opportunity for dialogue.

"A line we've been using for years is: not talking about [suicide], isn't working." Chisholm said. "So, I went straight to students and young people and said, 'what is this and how do you feel about it?'"

The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why traces the life events of teenager Hannah Baker, who sends a series of tapes to classmates she believes played a role in her eventual suicide. (Beth Dubber/Netflix)
Chisholm said it's rare for people to be talking about suicide, when no one has died in real life.

"One hundred per cent of the young people I talked to had watched it, or read the books and not only had they told me they watched it, or read the books and not only did they tell me they watched it but they actually sat and wanted to engage in a dialogue about it," he said.

Those conversations are heartening for the advocate who was a teenager when he lost his father to suicide in 1982 and felt he had no one to talk to.

Research shows that those who are closest to people who die by suicide are at the greatest risk of committing suicide themselves. 

"It's my hope and belief that the dialogue on and around 13 Reasons Why will create the pro-active dialogue on suicide that we, young and old alike, need so badly," Chisholm wrote in a blog post this week.

For those who are stumped by how to start that conversation, he suggests Thirteen Reasons Why Lesson Plan developed by the Centre for Suicide Prevention.

"I looked for resources and they're out there," Chisholm said. "They're great for schools, but also great for parents."


If you are experiencing emotional distress and want to talk, call the ​Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 to speak to a counsellor or the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310. Both numbers are toll-free and open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.