Netflix's '13 Reasons Why' brings suicide, mental health discussion to teens and schools
"The series brings a lot positive conversations around mental health and suicide prevention ... what it doesn't do is give people any help or hope that there are other ways to address all these issues."
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- If you're not a parent you may not of heard of the new Netflix series '13 Reasons Why' -- but it's all the buzz among middle and high school-aged teens.
'People were talking about it my class so I started to watch it," said Kayla Hudson, a junior at Atherton High School. "It was very emotional ... but I thought it was pretty good."
The 13-part miniseries, which premiered on March 31, is a fictional show that chronicles the suicide of a teenager named Hannah who is teased, taunted and cyber bullied after a kiss caught on camera spreads throughout her school.
As a result, she leaves behind a series of 13 messages for specific people in her life that she blames for her death. "13 Reasons Why" is based on a novel by the same name, which was released a decade ago.
"I heard of people talking about it on Twitter so I decided to watch it," said LaRee Shontee, a senior at duPont Manual High School. "I thought it was pretty good and it had good intentions to bring attention to how what you say and do can affect people. But I could (also) see it undermining the complexity of suicide because it depicts it as an act of revenge. or a vengeful act rather than a result of a mental illness."
It was the chatter about the show popping up inside the hallways and classrooms of several schools that prompted Jefferson County Public Schools to send a resource letter to parents on Wednesday.
Michelle Sircy, the lead counselor for JCPS, said the district decided to take a proactive approach in an attempt to get important resources out to its families.
"The series brings a lot positive conversations around mental health and suicide prevention," Sircy said in an interview with WDRB on Thursday. "It also lets kids and adults know that what they do and say to others makes a difference."
The series depicts sexual abuse, rape and bullying -- something Sircy says "opens up a conversation on a lot of really important topics that people are struggling with."
"It gives us a vehicle, it sparks the conversation around mental health and suicide prevention," Sircy said. "What it doesn't do is give people any help or hope that there are other ways to address all these issues outside of suicide."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists suicide the second leading cause of death among teenagers. And according to the CDC's 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, about 10 percent of high school students in Kentucky and Indiana have tried it.
Mental health experts and organizations have been critical of the series.
In a recent blog entry about the series, the National Association of School Psychologists says "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 organization says the show could bring potential risks posed by the sensationalized treatment of youth suicide and that they don't recommend that vulnerable youth watch the series.
"We want to help make sure that people watching know that there are other options and there are other means to make it through the struggle that they are experiencing," Sircy said. "The message we want to give them is if they are struggling, come talk to someone either a school counselor or another trusted adult in their life. They don't have to go through it alone."
"13 Reasons Why" has drawn mixed reactions online, with some parents writing: "Very good series, informative for sure." Others call it "eye opening."
But some are more cautious, saying: "There are some kids who do have bad thoughts and this can trigger them to self harm."
Sircy says that's why its important for parents to be aware and to make a personal decision on whether this is okay for their child to watch.
But she also cautions that students may view the series with -- or without -- parental knowledge.
"I've heard a couple of parents say, 'We don't have Netflix, so we don't have to worry about it'," she said. "Just because the parents don't have a Netflix account doesn't mean that students don't have access to Netflix. Adults and students share their Netflix passwords and you can also get clips of it on YouTube.
"I don't want parents to have a false sense of security that just because they don't have a Netflix account, their kids won't have access to the series," Sircy said.
None of the JCPS students WDRB spoke with on Thursday discussed the book or series first with their parents.
But they say they all gained a lesson from it.
"It helps people think about what their actions and what their words do," said Caroline Gribbons, another senior at duPont Manual.
Hudson, 17, said she agrees.
"It helped me think of the signs of how suicide could happen," she said.
To read the full letter from JCPS, you can click here.
In Louisville, children, teens and families can call Centerstone (formerly Seven Counties Services) 24-hour crisis line at 502-589-8070. Centerstone is one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit providers of community-based behavioral health care.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.
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