‘13 Reasons Why’ Netflix series prompts local conversations about suicide
July 17, 2017
These confidential hotlines for children and adults dealing with suicidal thoughts or depression are available 24/7:
• National Suicide Hotline, 800-273-8255
• Colorado Crisis Services, 844-493-8255, or text “talk” to 38255
• Mind Springs Health Local Crisis Hotline, 888-207-4004
The ultra-popular Netflix teen series "13 Reasons Why" depicts teen suicide, among other tough topics, including bullying, rape, voyeurism, profiling, physical violence, drug and alcohol abuse and bystanding.
The story centers on high school student Hannah, who has committed suicide and left behind cassette tapes calling out those whom she believes drove her to her death.
Talk of the controversial show has been banned in many Canadian schools. The New Zealand Office of Film and Literature forbids those younger than 18 from watching the show without an adult present, and the Mesa County school district temporarily pulled all copies of the book that inspired the show.
Start the conversation
Local mental health counselors, school administrators and parents are concerned that "13 Reasons Why" does not offer enough solutions for help — although Netflix recently added numbers for suicide prevention at the end of the show and trigger warnings before some of the highly graphic episodes depicting rape and suicide.
"Netflix is an extremely powerful medium," said Carol Johnson, community engagement and parent program coordinator for the Eagle River Youth Coalition. "The show tackles these really tough topics that create important conversations for parents to have with their children — and this is a powerful thing.
"(But) they have to be careful about how they depict their characters and take the show to where it is more teachable and offer solutions for help."
The Eagle River Youth Coalition collaborates with Eagle County youth-serving organizations to assess prevention needs, coordinate substance-abuse reduction efforts and build strategic plans, programs and policies around issues facing young people.
Johnson watched the show with two of her children and paused during certain episodes to "create teachable moments." She said it was important for her to see the show through her children's eyes, and although there were many uncomfortable moments, she was proactive and asked them how they felt about certain situations and asked if some of the behavior by other characters was acceptable or if they would tell their parents if they were "thinking those thoughts."
Christina Lautenberg, the president of Parent Partners at Vail Mountain School, watched the show at the same time but not together with her teenage daughter. Then the duo met up to discuss the show.
"She found some of the characters relatable: 'So and so looks like someone I know. So and so acts like someone I know.' That was a good 'in' and a good beginning for the conversation," Lautenberg said.
Johnson advised that parents check in with their children to see if they have watched the show.
"If they answer 'yes,' ask them if they have any questions, how do they feel about the topics. If they haven't watched it, ask them if they would want to watch it with you," she said.
Although "13 Reasons Why" is labeled TV-MA (potentially unsuitable for children younger than 17), many middle school and even elementary school children have viewed the series in Eagle County.
"I appreciate that '13 Reasons Why' is creating conversations about topics that can be challenging to talk about. Bringing this forward is exactly what we need to do," said Molly Fiore, program director for Speak Up Reach Out Suicide Prevention Coalition of the Eagle Valley.
Speak Up Reach Out aims to reduce the number of suicides in Eagle County by providing educational resources in schools and providing a comprehensive website for community resources at speakupreachout.org.
"Having teens watch '13 Reasons Why' with a parent is so incredibly important or having parents watch the episodes first so they know what's coming," Fiore said. "Some of the things are really not safe for some individuals to watch. The real lack of parent involvement in the show, or evidence of help-seeking behavior, makes it challenging for kids to get the message that help is out there and these things are treatable.
"Mental illness was never brought up, and that is such a huge component of suicide."
Some of the show's harshest critics are concerned there may be copycat behavior and, indeed, parents of two California teens who committed suicide are claiming "13 Reasons Why" was the catalyst.
But Fiore dispels the myth that talking about suicide plants a seed.
"That is just not accurate. Elementary school kids have been asking these questions way early, then we have come into the conversation and they have thought about it. It doesn't give them the idea, but talking about it does give them the relief that now there is an opportunity for anybody thinking about suicide to talk about it," she said.
"I've been astounded having these conversations in the middle schools and the high schools that they have so many questions and they are so craving these conversations. They ask great questions, and I think they like having the opportunity to talk about this."
Katie Jarnot, principal at Eagle Valley Middle School has dealt with bullying in the school, and at one time, she had to call in law enforcement due to copycat behavior from another popular teen series, "Pretty Little Liars."
"Kids are watching all kinds of stuff," Jarnot said. "I'm less concerned about the graphic scenes than I am about what's left out in the processing and the discussions about addressing mental health. I've had parents of elementary kids tell me, 'My kid was watching that and I didn't know what it is.'
"I think it all comes down to making those human connections and really seeing the person in front of you. Technology allows us not to do that. When you send a text, you don't see the reaction of that person. You need to speak to someone face to face and ask them how they are doing."
"This is definitely going on in the schools," said Ruby Black, a youth advisor at Eagle River Youth Coalition and a 2016 graduate of Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy. "There wasn't fighting in the hallways, but kids talked about other kids behind each other's backs. Even in my class of 10, there were a lot of themes you saw in the show."
After a suicide prevention program at Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy, Black and her friends made a pact that if anyone was feeling suicidal or depressed or even just needed a friend to talk to that they would be there for one another.
"After I watched the show, I went out of my way to talk to people and look them directly in the eye," Lautenberg said. "It made me realize how important these connections really are."
Take it seriously
The suicide rate in Eagle County is nearly twice that of the United States due to its rural setting, Fiore said. If a student talks about suicidal ideation to a counselor or if it gets reported to Speak Up Reach Out, then the organization utilizes a tool that assesses the situation.
"If we feel at all we need to call in someone with more expertise, that's what we do," said Fiore, who notes Speak Up Reach Out works closely with Mind Springs Health.
The first step, the experts agree, is opening a line of communication. If children do not feel comfortable talking to their parents, then they are encouraged to reach out to a trusted adult, be it a school counselor, teacher, law enforcement or anyone with whom they are comfortable.
"Sometimes, parents don't take this (suicide risks) as seriously as I would like them to. They say, 'Oh, we'll look into counseling,' and I tell them, 'Do it now,'" Jarnot said. "Sometimes parents don't want to admit it or they see it as a failure on their part, and we try to address all of that, but there needs to be more education for parents."