Youth Advocates Worry Netflix Series Glorifies Suicide

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Health , Education

In an unusual step, Monomoy school officials and local youth advocates are voicing concerns about “13 Reasons Why,” a series on Netflix that may be seen to romanticize teen suicide.

Based on a 2007 young adult novel by Jay Asher, the video series follows a series of audio recordings a teen leaves behind for her classmates and peers explaining why she decided to kill herself. Last week, the Monomoy school district sent a letter asking parents to think carefully about whether the series is appropriate for a teen to watch.

School officials said they concur with suicide prevention experts and school psychologists that the series is not recommended for young people to watch, particularly without an adult to help them understand and process the story. Specifically, the series graphically depicts a suicide death, and details instances of bullying, rape, drunk driving and “slut shaming,” the letter reads. The program highlights the consequences of teens witnessing these events as bystanders, and not taking action to intervene.

“While many youth are resilient and capable of differentiating between a TV drama and real life, engaging in thoughtful conversations with them about the show is vital,” the letter reads. Doing so presents an opportunity to thoughtfully talk about the issues portrayed, and to reinforce the message that suicide is not a solution to problems, officials wrote.

“This is particularly important for adolescents who are isolated, struggling, or vulnerable to suggestive images and story lines,” the letter continues.

Harwich Youth Counselor Sheila House said she doesn't believe the filmmakers' intentions were dishonorable or self-serving.

“I just think that they didn't have enough experts on suicide, especially teen suicide, behind the making of this film,” she said. “It also doesn't really mention mental illness that much.” House said that in more than 80 percent of those who feel suicidal, another mental health problem is present, “and that just never gets brought up. It's all about blaming other kids for bullying this kid,” she said.

Eldredge Public Library Youth Services Librarian Tammy DePasquale is organizing an informal book group where adults and teens can discuss the novel and the Netflix series. Along with several other differences from the book, the video vividly portrays the protagonist's suicide by slitting her wrists, rather than by an overdose of pills.

“It's very visual,” she said. “Watching it is so very different from reading it.” Also, watching a video can be a solitary activity, unlike checking out a library book. “We can have these conversations that come so easily,” she said.

The book talk is scheduled for June 6 at 6:30 p.m. in the library, and does not include a panel discussion or any organized program. It's simply an opportunity for dialogue, DePasuqale said.

“That's the main point. Just talk about it,” she said.

House agreed that dialogue is key, particularly with teens and adolescents, “so that they really understand what takes a kid to the point where they'd want to end their life.” Many young people experience some degree of hopelessness, and counseling is critical. After that kind of conversation with a counselor, “usually suicide is totally taken off the table as an option,” House said. Suicide is the most preventable form of fatality among teens, she said. “That's the great news.”

The producers of the television series have defended the program, saying it opens an opportunity for dialogue about difficult issues. They also produced a 29-minute companion piece, “13 Reasons Why: Beyond The Reasons,” in which the cast, producers and mental health professionals discuss scenes that include bullying, depression and sexual assault.

Still, research cited by the National Association of School Psychologists shows that exposure to another person's suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be a risk factor cited by young people contemplating suicide. The powerful storytelling in the series “may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies,” the Association's statement reads. “They may easily identify with the experience portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character.”

School officials urge people to be aware of the warning signs of suicide risk among young people, and to always take them seriously, never promising to keep them secret. Suicide threats, explicit and implicit, in person or on social media postings, are serious, as is a preoccupation with death in conversation, writing or drawing. Emotional distress, changes in behavior or appearance, or giving away prized possessions are other warning signs, they say.

“If they exhibit any of the warning signs above, don't be afraid to ask if they have thought about suicide or if someone is hurting them,” the statement reads. “Raising the issue of suicide does not increase the risk or plant the idea.”

Parents and students are encouraged to speak with a school counselor or psychologist to ask questions or talk about their feelings.

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