The Netflix breakout show “13 Reasons Why” has been praised for its binge-worthy, dramatic storytelling. But mental health experts warn that its thrilling narrative devices also make it problematic. —Huffington Post
Middle schoolers and high schoolers across America are buzzing about the now controversial Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” which attempts to tackle the painful issue of teen suicide.
Despite its “Mature Audience” rating, serious themes and graphic rape and suicide scenes, many parents are finding themselves behind the eight ball, unaware that the series even exists—let alone that their children are watching the 13 episodes on their phones and tablets, totally cut off from the adults who love them most.
I watched the entire series and while I found it gripping in ways, I became extremely concerned about the tweens and teens I knew had to be viewing it as well. I did a bit of digging and discovered that indeed, middle schoolers are watching it in droves and others are asking their parents if they can watch it.
This series is no joke. A 10th-grader takes her own life, on screen. The scene is graphic and hard to watch. And it is bloody. The premise is that before ending her life, she records 13 cassette tapes for the 13 people she blames for her feeling so hopeless that the only solution she can see is to commit suicide.
The audience sees a series of flashbacks throughout and is able to see what was happening in her life at home and at school before she dies. They also watch the drama that unfolds in the aftermath of her death once the tapes begin making their way through the 13 people she describes.
Mental health experts and suicide prevention groups are already expressing grave concern about the series, claiming that it downplays the issue of suicide and even glamorizes it in a way that could be very dangerous for some kids. They worry about “suicide contagion” too.
Suicide contagion is the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors.
Articles and television segments about the series are popping up all over the place and resources that provide conversation starters, fact sheets and tips for parents and educators in dealing with the series are readily available online. Facebook is full of threads of parents discussing the series, expressing concern and debating whether or not their kids should be allowed to watch it.
A mental health expert on “Good Morning America” describes this series as an ‘entry-point’ to the conversation around teen suicide and says that if a parent decides to allow their child to watch the series, they should “co-view” it, with the parent not only watching the show but also watching their child’s reactions to watching it.
The superintendent of schools in Bedford, New York sent a letter home to all parents in the district. His letter is worth a read since, at least at this point, most parents in America have not received any communication from their children’s schools about the Netflix series.
I am writing today to share concerns about a television series students may be watching. While many consider the video streaming service, Netflix, as “just another TV channel,” it is a paid subscription service and therefore not subjected to the same FCC regulations and content rating system as broadcast TV.
Netflix recently began airing an original series entitled, 13 Reasons Why, based on the young adult book with the same title by Jay Asher. The novel was intended for young adults; however, 13 Reasons Why contains mature subject matter including graphic depictions of rape, substance abuse, cyberbullying, bullying, voyeurism, and suicide. 13 Reasons Why is about a teenager who takes her own life, but before doing so methodically records audio messages for the 13 people she feels in some way played a role in her decision to commit suicide.
This series has been available on Netflix since the end of March. Former Disney child star, Selena Gomez, is credited as a producer. With her name attached, 13 Reasons Why may reach a much younger audience than anticipated. Middle and High School students are likely aware of the series and may have even watched some, or all, of the episodes.
It is important for you to be cognizant of its availability, allure, content, and popularity. The series romanticizes suicide as a viable option, portrays school support staff as being non-responsive to students in need, and does not offer any appropriate responses or advice for students who may be in crisis.
Producers are portraying the series as an “important dialogue.”
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) cautions that its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to sensationalize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.
Caring for the well-being of young children and teens is most effective when schools and parents work together. This letter is written with the hope that with informed guidance from parents and trusted adults, students will make healthy decisions regarding their young lives. Series such as this can be thought-provoking but, they can also do harm. It is highly recommended that if your child is interested in the program, you consider watching it with them in order to give the supporting guidance that suicide is never an answer, and the blame for suicide does NOT belong to others.
If you wish to have a dialogue with your child(ren) about 13 Reasons Why, I have listed the following resources from mental health organizations to assist you in your discussion. I have also included two trailers for the show that you may find useful in becoming fully informed about this series.
- Preventing Youth Suicide Brief Facts (also available in Spanish) and Preventing Youth Suicide: Tips or Parents and Educators
- 13 Reason Why trailer that provides the basic storyline for the series.
- 13 Reasons Why original trailer.
As always, if you have concerns about your child or worries about the health and well-being of others, please do not hesitate to contact your child’s teacher, guidance counselor, school psychologist, social worker or an administrator.
Dr. Christopher M. Manno,
Superintendent of Schools