Netflix Series Sparks School Debate on Teen Suicide

On the heels of what has become a controversial topic in schools from coast to coast, Netflix has renewed the popular teen drama 13 Reasons Why for a second season. The series, based on the best-selling novel by Jay Asher, follows the story of 17-year-old teen Hannah Baker, who took her own life after creating a series of 13 tapes to document the reasons for this decision. According to CNN, the announcement was made in a simple Instagram post by executive producer Selena Gomez that stated simply, “"Their story isn't over,Season 2 of #13ReasonsWhy is coming."

Due to a belief that the series may glorify teen suicide to an unsuspecting and vulnerable teenager, the series has sparked controversy in schools around the country and the world. My own NH high school made national headlines in April when my school counseling team released a statement to parents regarding the series. My superintendent, Dr. Brian Blake, had this to say about the statement: “They (teens) are vulnerable and impressionable. We want to make sure we are taking care and putting the proper resources in place.”

The National Association of School Psychologists has taken a strong position on this issue. On their website, they explain their reasons for this: “Schools have an important role in preventing youth suicide, and being aware of potential risk factors in students’ lives is vital to this responsibility. The trending Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, based on a young adult novel of the same name, is raising such concerns.” They go on to say, “We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies. They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character.” The organization goes on to provide educators with suggestions and tools to support teens who may be at high-risk for teen suicide. These included the following:

  • Teens who do watch the show should do so with an adult.
  • Educators should empower teens to listen to each other and learn how to look for signs that their peer may be in trouble.
  • Reinforce that school-employed mental health professionals are available to help.
  • Make sure parents, teachers, and students are aware of suicide risk warning signs.
  • Students who feel suicidal are not likely to seek help directly; however, parents, school personnel, and peers can recognize the warning signs and take immediate action to keep the youth safe.
  • School or district officials should determine how to handle memorials after a student has died.
  • Reinforcing resiliency factors can lessen the potential of risk factors that lead to suicidal ideation and behaviors.

The organization went on to provide similar guidelines for families and also safe messaging for students.

In New Zealand, a country with one of the highest teen suicide rates, the country’s Office of Film and Literature Classification determined that teens cannot watch the series without an adult present. According to this Entertainment Weekly article, the office stated, “13 Reasons Why brings up a lot of problems, but it doesn’t really provide many solutions. Young people need guidance and support from the adults in their life in order to help keep them safe.”

Last month, Fox news reported that Gomez defended her series telling the Associated Press in April, stating, "We stayed very true to the book. That’s initially what Jay Asher created, a beautifully tragic, complicated yet suspenseful story, and I think that’s what we wanted to do." According to this Education Week article, the series producers and actors generally believe that the show provides a public service by highlighting important topics for teens such as bullying, rape, and suicide. In a recent Ellen Degeneres Talk show interview, series actors Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette talked candidly about the show with Degeneres, who asked them, “I know there's a lot of controversy because people say there's a lot of heaviness in the show, but in high school right now, and even in younger [grades], kids experience a lot of bullying and other things. So you're doing a service to parents to help them understand what their kids are going through, don't you think? "Minette responded by saying, "The main goal overall is to start conversations that need to be had, the bring these issues to light, and to show them in a real way. If people are talking about it, we've reached our goal."

For better or worse, it is clear that 13 Reasons Why is here to stay, and no one can doubt that fact that it has certainly brought to light some of the very real struggles that today’s teens are facing. Moving forward, it will take a combined effort between schools and families to provide the tools, resources, and supports to help teens through difficult times.

This article was written originally for MultiBriefs Education.

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