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By Taylor Knopf
Mental health experts and public school officials are leery of the popular new Netflix miniseries “13 Reasons Why” and urge caution when watching it.
The Wake County Public School system, along with others around the U.S., have advised parents not to let vulnerable teenagers watch the show, which was released in March. And if students watch it anyway, mental health experts are encouraging parents to talk to their kids about it and are providing plenty of resources for those discussions.
At the beginning of the first episode of “13 Reasons Why,” an advisory message appears: “This fictional series covers several difficult issues, including depression and suicide,” the warning reads. “If you or anyone you know need help finding support and crisis resources in your area, go to 13reasonswhy.info for more information.”
Then the show opens with the voice of a high school girl named Hannah Baker, who is dead. She has ended her life after being bullied and raped by her schoolmates, which is all graphically depicted in the show. Hannah narrates the story, detailing her grievances over 13 sides of cassette tapes. This set of tapes is passed around among the 13 people she blames for her death.
“Hey, It’s Hannah, Hannah Baker,” she says cheekily on the first tape. “It’s me, live and in stereo. No return engagements, no encore, and this time absolutely no requests.”
“If you are listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.”
The series is rated TV-MA, for mature adult audiences only. However, it’s a show about teenagers set in a high school and produced by pop-star Selena Gomez. So it’s no surprise kids are watching.
In April, Netflix put out its only press release regarding “13 Reasons Why” in the form of survey results. It encouraged parents to watch the shows their kids are watching to feel closer to them and gave specific resources for talking about “13 Reasons Why.”
The series is rated TV-MA, for mature adult audiences only. However, it’s a show about teenagers set in a high school and produced by pop-star Selena Gomez. So kids are definitely watching.
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“The first few episodes were entertaining and got me hooked,” she said. “Once I got more into it, I thought it definitely glorified suicide. I realized it was dangerous to watch for young teenagers who are feeling the same way Hannah did.”
Weisz said she couldn’t think of anyone at school who hasn’t seen the series or isn’t currently watching it.
“It blew up so fast,” she said. “I don’t think the producers expected everyone to see it and be talking about it.”
The show is based on a 2007 book of the same name by Jay Asher. Weisz said she and a lot of her classmates read it in middle school.
“It makes it so that suicide seems like the only way out, and you can solve all your problems from it. And people will like you better after you do it,” Weisz said. “It should be teaching kids to talk to others and find help.”
In early May, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hosted a webinar to talk about the show. Representatives from the American School Counselor Association and the National Association of School Psychologists joined in the presentation.
They discussed the show’s many flaws and missed opportunities, along with suicide signs and statistics. Experts on the panel expressed a number of issues they have with the show.
Suicide can be contagious
“Contagion is a truly real phenomenon when it comes to suicide risk,” said Christine Moutier, Chief Medical Officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Not everyone is as affected, but however, vulnerable youth can be at a higher risk of suicide after exposure to one.
“There is research study after research study that shows clusters and copycat suicides do occur after a peer suicide or when a suicide is portrayed in particular ways,” Moutier said. “That is why the messaging around suicide and prevention is so critically important.”
“The plot and production quality of the series is highly engaging, which is terrific for entertainment value,” Moutier said, “but in this case, I believe that, unintentionally, the producers really did romanticize the suicide.”
She said many scenes are dark and young people can easily relate to them. For example, in the show, Hannah is slut-shamed, betrayed, bullied and raped.
Weisz noted that at Cary High, cyberbullying can be an issue.
“Teens today can relate to that so much more on a level that adults don’t understand,” she said. “Especially when Hannah was bullied online and stuff. It’s so easy to be criticized online.”
Moutier also expressed concern that suicide was the solution to Hannah’s problems right from the beginning of the show. Seeing that as the only way out of a problem could lead teens to feel the same way, she said.
In the show, Hannah’s voice and story haunts those who listen to the tapes. She reappears in flashbacks and people feel sorry for her. Finally, she is heard.
“It really serves, in a way, to amplify that message of being able to have an impact after one’s suicide death,” Moutier said.
‘It’s their fault’
In the show, Hannah blames 13 people and their actions or inactions for her death.
“It simplifies suicide as a reaction,” Moutier said. “That’s one of our concerns about ‘13 Reasons Why.’ It does seem to promote this ‘one cause and event.’”
She argued the media contributes to the incorrect view that something happens that makes a person take their own life. In fact, she said, there are many signs and symptoms leading up to a suicide. She listed some of psychological factors such as “perfectionism, high anxiety, being extremely hard on one’s self, intolerance, black and white thinking and being unforgiving of one’s self.”
Mental health… hello?
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 35, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Moutier noted that in 90 percent of teen suicide deaths, there was a mental health diagnosis that could have been treated, but mental health issues are never mentioned in the series.
The show also depicts two rape scenes and Hannah’s very graphic suicide death.
“The graphic scenes add an additional layer of concern for both contagion — because the method is so graphically portrayed — and also for people who have experienced trauma to become agitated,” Moutier said.
Where are the grownups?
Hannah reaches out to her school counselor the day she kills herself. He’s less than helpful.
Hannah’s parents are completely unaware of what’s going on in their daughter’s life. They have to ask students at school who her friends were.
“The adults in this series are portrayed as people who don’t get it,” Moutier said. “They are out to lunch, clueless and, frankly, not helping at times when they should. They are harmful in certain ways.”
Weisz said for her friends Cary High a school counselor is not considered the one for help with mental health issues.
“I don’t think people my age really perceive them as being able to help for those kinds of issues,” she said. “People in their teens see school guidance counselors as the person you go to to drop a class. I don’t think you really see them as someone you talk to when you’re not in a good place.”
The only suicide prevention effort Weisz can remember is when a guidance counselor showed a short video to her English class at the beginning of the year.
“And then they left,” she said. “Not great, so basic. They didn’t really give a lot of options of who you could talk to.
“I felt like if I was in a bad place, they wouldn’t be the first people I go to.”