School officials and mental health experts are sounding alarms to parents that a popular Netflix series about a 17-year-old who takes her own life is graphic and could incite dangerous thoughts and actions by teens. But some parents and teens say it’s a must-see series.
What’s clear from nearly every perspective is that the series — “13 Reasons Why” — should jolt adults and teens to talk about uncomfortable topics, including bullying, rape and suicide.
“It’s definitely a must-see for parents because it can open the doors to talk about what your kids might be going through,” said Lisa Handley, a Rosemount mother of two adult children. “Kids are probably going to watch it with their friends or by themselves. So parents need to ask the question: Have you watched it? And then it can open up conversations.”
Mental health experts and school officials, however, take issue with graphic scenes that could trigger dangerous behavior for some vulnerable teens and are concerned that the series didn’t provide alternatives to suicide.
“The rape scenes are very graphic,” said Daniel Reidenberg, executive director of SAVE, a suicide prevention organization. “The violence in other scenes where people are beaten are incredibly graphic. The suicide scene itself is very graphic and very sensationalized. Anytime we have portrayals like that, kids can’t often separate fiction from reality.”
This has mental health and school officials concerned about the “contagion effect.” “The concern is that it could prompt people to attempt suicide, think about suicide or die by suicide,” Reidenberg said.
Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota, said her organization strongly advocates talking about mental illness and suicide, but in a safe way. The suicide scene in the series is “gratuitous,” she said, and not necessary to the story’s plot. “Research has shown that you don’t want to be specific about how a person dies because it could trigger some people to take their lives.”
The popularity of the series with teens prompted school districts, including Lakeville, Anoka-Hennepin, Minnetonka, Wayzata, Eden Prairie and Edina, to send notes to families, making them aware that teens may be watching the controversial series and providing them with information to help them talk about it.
“While the show is compelling and dramatic, the concern many of us that work with children share is that it does not accurately model what we would want or hope individuals do if they are struggling or in crisis,” said an e-mail sent to parents Tuesday by Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest district.
“The district is trying to be proactive,” said Anoka-Hennepin spokesman Jim Skelly, who noted that the district has seen an uptick in self-injurious behavior — even at the elementary school level — that might be connected to the show. “This is a fine line because the district does not want to single out or promote the program that some students might be watching.”
Suicide has been a tender topic for the Anoka-Hennepin district, where several student suicides in a two-year period between 2010 and 2012 triggered an emotional debate among parents and school officials over the role of bullying and discrimination about gender identity.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among adolescents 15 to 19, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some parents who have watched the series say some experts are overreacting, arguing the series doesn’t “glorify” suicide but rather sheds light on some of the trauma and struggles some teens go through.
“This portrays it through how a teen sees it, not parents,” said Maris Ehlers of Greenfield. “I think it’s almost more important for parents to watch. It’s scary stuff, and that’s why parents have to watch.” She watched the series and likely will watch it with her 13-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter when they’re at least 14 years old.
“The best thing about ‘13 Reasons’ is that whether you watch it or not, it has people talking about suicide in a way I’ve never seen before,” Ehlers said.
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768