’13 Reasons Why’ … not

A recent Netflix series entitled “13 Reasons Why” is a fictional drama built around 13 audiotapes recorded by a high school junior shortly before she dies by suicide. Each tape is about a person whose actions – or lack thereof – contributed to her action. In addition to the extremely sensitive topic of suicide, rape, sexual assault, drug abuse, bullying and betrayals are packed into the series aimed at a teen audience.

Creators of the series claim they wanted to shed light on suicide and prompt conversation. Have they ever, and a lot of that conversation is critical of the way they chose to portray these issues.

Suicide is a public health issue and the second leading cause of death for American children and young adults, ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It has risen recently into the top 10 causes of death for American adults.

Those who commit suicide are in intense emotional pain. Unfortunately, by throwing every other major issue kids face into the plot mix, suicide gets glossed over, as far as I am concerned. A number of professionals have objected to the way other issues are portrayed as having a cause-and-effect impact on the lead character’s suicide. They believe there is no proof of this in suicidology research.

Others decry the graphic portrayal of the suicide itself. Some labeled it a “how-to manual,” while one therapist who reportedly helped shape the scripts pooh-poohed that concern saying there were already many internet sites showing how to commit suicide. That comment gets filed in the “Are you kidding me?” file.

During a chat with Sheffield-Sheffield Lake Schools Superintendent Mike Cook last week, I learned he had emailed a letter to parents of middle and high school students expressing concerns about the series. I reached out to Avon’s Mike Laub and Avon Lake’s Bob Scott and learned they had taken similar action.

As a matter of fact, school districts all over America are sending letters and emails to parents expressing multiple concerns about the series and its potential negative impact on students. A number of professional associations, including National Association of School Psychologists, the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, have expressed concern about the series.

One of the resources our superintendents recommended parents read is authored by John Ackerman, Ph.D., for Nationwide Children’s Hospital. He wrote, “The benefits of increased attention to youth suicide do not outweigh the increased risk stemming from sensationalistic features and misconceptions about suicide perpetuated by 13RW.”

“Just because something is entertaining does not make it accurate,” he states.

Exactly. I’m glad they spoke out. I watched part of the series – the first four and last three segments. Some is gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. Some is just unrealistic, while other parts gloss over issues that simply should not be glossed over while glamorizing suicide.

I recommend that any teen watch this series – including just one segment – with an adult, either a parent or school or private mental health counselor.

I am familiar with show scriptwriter Brian Yorkey’s previous work. He wrote the book and subsequent lyrics for “Next to Normal,” a Broadway musical which detailed the impact of a mother’s bipolar illness on the rest of the family.

When I worked at CWRU, we collaborated with a local theater that produced “Next to Normal.” Before our contingent of 50, primarily social workers and counselors, saw the play, we held a one-hour discussion led by a licensed social worker to prepare guests for the production and allow them to discuss mental illness, treatment and maltreatment. Following the final curtain, the social worker was available to anyone – group or individual – who felt they needed to process what they experienced. This is the type of support we provided our adult audience of mental health professionals.

Other than its MA warning, there is no preparation for what one is about to view in “13 Reasons Why.” The show producers created a 30-minute program called “Beyond the Reasons.” In my opinion, it does not begin to address the potential damage the series might cause for some, instead providing an unapologetic justification for why and what they did.

Now Netflix is pondering a second season.

The news media has a resource – and it’s a good one – that provides us with data and do’s and don’ts about how to write about suicide. The producers of “13 Reasons Why” do not appear to have read it, or, worse, dismissed it. So have some reporters, which I find particularly disheartening. Their use of sensationalized headlines and/or story leads – like the series itself – is dangerous. Last fall, I postponed a column on veteran suicide, instead opting to write a column about the fears I had about writing about suicide and making sure before that column published the following week that I followed every single piece of advice offered by professionals, including Catherine Sotolo, who is head of suicide prevention at our Wade Park VA. Ackerman wrote, “Disregarding best practices in media portrayals of suicide” can cause more harm than good.

Because suicide is a major public health issue, it deserves a thoughtful national dialogue. “13 Reasons Why” certainly provokes conversation, but not the meaningful one we need to have.

Suicide Prevention Resources

Following are local and national resources that can help you, family members, neighbors or colleagues who are trying to learn more about suicide, or trying to find help for someone who may be suicidal:

Lorain County Crisis Hotline: 800 888- 6161 staffed 24/7 by a licensed counselor and a nurse

Crisis Text Service: text 741741 then 4HOPE to be connected to a trained crisis counselor

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Our school superintendents also say students services staff are available to support their kids and families.

Other resources include:

the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860

the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386

If you don’t like the phone, consider using the Lifeline Crisis Chat at www.crisischat.org.

Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide http://www.sptsusa.org/

Jed Foundation: https://www.jedfoundation.org/

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