COLUMBIA CITY — A recently released Netflix series is catching the attention of many — so much that Whitley County Consolidated Schools issued a letter to families last week.
The letter cautions parents to be informed about the show, “13 Reasons Why.”
“The health and well-being of our students is of paramount importance to the staff of WCCS,” Superintendent Patricia O’Connor wrote in the letter. “Because of this, we work to keep our families informed about mental health and social media issues which may impact our students.”
The series takes on topics such as teen suicide, bullying and sexual assault. The show revolves around a girl, Hannah, who takes her life and leaves behind tape recordings for 13 people she says were part of the reason she committed suicide.
The show is based on a book with the same title, published in 2007, by Jay Asher.
There’s been discussion on whether the series is more helpful or hurtful to young adults.
“With children of all ages watching and talking about this series, mental health advocates have raised concerns over the messages conveyed,” the superintendent’s letter reads. “Because of the show’s mature content, the series may raise questions and feelings which may be difficult for impressionable minds to watch and process.”
The show graphically depicts sexual assault and, in the final episode, shows the suicide itself.
“While many youth are resilient and capable of differentiating between television drama and real life, it is best that young people watch this with an adult to provide perspective and to help them process what they are seeing and feeling,” the letter reads.
O’Connor suggests parents talk with their child, and use it as an opportunity to talk about complicated, sensitive issues the show confronts.
Columbia City High School Guidance Counselors Sarah Maynard and Derek Yoder said CCHS provides several resources for help to students who are suicidal.
In one episode of the show, Hannah reaches out to a counselor who is dismissive of her feelings.
“That episode made me very mad,” Maynard said. “If a student like that came into our office, we wouldn’t allow them to leave our office.”
The CCHS guidance department has an open-door policy, where students can stop by anytime throughout the day to talk. They can also request an appointment online.
“Even if it’s midnight, they can request to see us,” Maynard said.
WCCS also has a partnership with the Bowen Center. Students can receive two, free counseling sessions by calling Bowen’s hotline: (800)342-5652.
“I think it’s important for students to reach out and seek help,” Maynard said. “We know the common warnings, like seeing their grades slipping and behavior changes, but there’s times kids are telling other kids things, who aren’t reporting it to adults.”
There’s the bystander effect — students may not be directly involved, but witness things and don’t do anything about it.”
Yoder said some students take the words of their peers to heart, more so than in previous generations.
“Something someone might have said to you and I might not effect us like it does to high school students today,” Yoder said. “Students hold on to what their peers say — they take it to heart. People say things now that they would never say to someone’s face. You can hide behind your phone and bully someone. It happens much more than physical bullying.”
The Youth Service Bureau has a list of 13 things parents should know about “13 Reasons Why:”
1. Bullying. The show highlights the impact that bullying and spreading rumors can have on teens. Teens’ reputations are important to them, and rumors can spread very quickly. One of the takeaways from the show is the importance of being kind to others and treating others well.
2. The impact of technology and social media. A picture can circulate throughout the school within minutes, and things that are sent cannot be unsent. A picture of Hannah, taken out of context, began her downward slide toward isolation.
3. Rape and sexual assault. The series shows that rape and sexual assault are a problem in high schools and that these crimes often go unreported. Victims don’t report for multiple reasons including shame, self-blame, fear of retaliation and fear of not being believed. These scenes are unnecessarily graphic, which is also important for parents to know.
4. The parents’ reaction to their child’s suicide. Hannah’s parents are devastated by her death, and they have a hard time focusing on anything other than what happened. They are living in anguish, searching for how their child could have done this.
5. Suicide was the only option. The series does not show Hannah seeking help in any meaningful way. Throughout the series, she writes an anonymous note and poem, and she makes “one last attempt” and visits her school counselor, who admittedly misses an opportunity to be helpful and ends up blaming the victim for her sexual assault. Hannah does not reach out to any other trusted adults, including her parents, during the course of the show.
6. No discussion or mention of mental health or illness. For those who die by suicide, more than 90 percent have a diagnosable mental illness (SAMHSA.gov). The show misses an opportunity to discuss how bullying and other life events could have impacted her mental health.
7. Suicide is glamorized. The creators of the show refute this claim, but many disagree. Hannah was beautiful and intriguing. Her tapes made her mysterious and powerful – the other students must follow her orders or risk the tapes being released publicly. She is portrayed as a hero for getting revenge on those who did her wrong.
8. “Living on” after death. Hannah is able to “live on” and communicate with her peers after her suicide. This is not reality. After a suicide, a person is dead. No more communicating. No more relationship. The person has died.
9. Blaming others for suicide. Rather than focusing on Hannah’s internal emotions and struggle, the show is very much “other-focused.” She leaves tapes for her “reasons” to hear what they did to her. Blaming others simplifies why a person chose to end his or her life, and implies it is a fully acceptable option.
10. Revenge suicide. Hannah was able to exact revenge on all of the people she blames for her suicide. This is a dangerous message to send to youth. Instead of addressing problems head-on using assertive communication, the show focuses on passive or passive-aggressive communication (leaving notes in bags, keying a car, etc.) Of course this is part of what makes television dramatic, but Hannah doesn’t confront any of the people she blames until after her death… when no one can do anything about it. This is not a helpful message to youth who are struggling or vulnerable.
11. The aftermath of a suicide. Hannah’s peers were more concerned with the tapes being made public than actually grieving for a lost friend. In providing support services to classmates following a suicide, students are devastated: not only friends of the student that died but also others that may not have personally known the person.
12. The graphic depiction of suicide. This show explicitly shows the act of Hannah dying by suicide. As an adult, this scene was very difficult to watch, and this is by far the most concerning element of the series. The show creators claim to have consulted with professionals during the creation of this show, however, this scene flies in the face of research by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Showing a graphic depiction of suicide in this manner increases the risk of additional or “copycat” suicides.
13. TV-MA. This show is rated TV-MA for a reason – there are many graphic scenes as well as intense subject matter. Given that this show is so popular with middle and high school students, the content of the show is concerning. The show does display warnings before particular episodes, but teens are unlikely to think, “Oh, this might be too much for me. I’ll shut it off.” The regulation centers of teen brains are not developed enough for that.
O’Connor also offered several links for parents, including save.org, afsp.org and nasponline.org.