Popular Netflix show ’13 Reasons Why’ sparks discussion at local schools

Joining educators from around the country, administrators from four local school districts recently sent letters home to parents encouraging them to be aware of a controversial new Netflix series dealing with teen suicide.

In the letters, which were sent by superintendents in the Greenport, Southold, Mattituck-Cutchogue and Shoreham-Wading River school districts, parents were encouraged to watch “13 Reasons Why” with their children and discuss the sensitive subjects the series addresses. The Riverhead district plans to send a similar letter home to parents in the near future.

“This is a sensitive issue,” said Neil Lederer, interim superintendent at Shoreham-Wading River. “We’re urging parents to watch it with their children so that the children don’t misinterpret the message. They should then follow it up with discussions. Because sometimes, and I experienced this in the past, some students will process this as suicide being a glorification, and we don’t want to do that.”

The National Association of School Psychologists has cautioned that teenagers who watch the show — which is based on a popular young adult novel — without adult guidance and support could risk dangerous consequences. The show depicts numerous difficult topics — rape, bullying, bystanding, drunk driving and slut shaming, as well as the depiction of a suicide — which could be triggers for some individuals.

In an effort to help viewers better process the scenes they’re watching, NASP provided parents with online tips on how to approach the subject with their children. These include asking if your child or any of their friends have thought about suicide or exhibit warning signs, listening to your children’s comments without judgment and getting help from a school- or community-based mental health professional if you’re concerned for the safety of your child or their peers.

“It’s a lot to handle,” said David Gamberg, superintendent of Southold and Greenport schools. “It’s one thing for an adult to navigate it, but people even as young as elementary students have the potential to encounter that. So the subject matter is important to discuss and be aware of.”

Ava Torres, a Greenport eighth-grader, agreed with the show’s creators, who have said the series is intended to generate discussion about suicide and offer hope to young people by proving they’re not alone in their feelings and experiences.

“It got kids to open up and realize if there is something going on, [they] should tell someone,” Ava said.

Fellow Greenport eighth-grader Shane Costello agreed, but felt the show was flawed in how it delivers its message.

“It’s important to talk about stuff like that because it’s kind of taboo,” Shane said. “The show kind of approached it in a weird way, though. It wasn’t displayed as a big talk about important material. It was displayed in a fun TV show.”

This is part of the reason critics and mental health professionals have claimed the show doesn’t achieve its goal. Instead, they say, “13 Reasons Why” glamorizes suicide and shies away from discussing mental illness.

NASP also criticized the show’s depiction of adults, saying parents and school officials in the series “do not inspire a sense of trust or ability to help.”

“It made counselors in all the schools look bad,” said Zoe Medina, a junior at Greenport High School. “And it neglects to provide other solutions to depression. Anyone more impressionable who is watching might think the only way out is suicide.”

With this in mind, local school administrators want students and adults to be aware of all the support their districts provide.

Each administrator listed school counselors and psychologists, social workers, nurses, teachers and administrators as people to whom students can turn should they want to discuss themes covered in the TV series and book — or anything happening in their own lives.

At Mattituck High School, “13 Reasons Why” is being discussed in health classes.

“[Ashley] Babst, our health teacher, has gone and done some research on criticism and concern about the TV show and is discussing those concerns,” principal Shawn Petretti said. “She’s asking, ‘Why is this a concern?’ and having that guided conversation with students.”

At Shoreham-Wading River, the district has made it a focus this school year to further educate the community about suicide prevention and mental health, Mr. Lederer said.

“We’re very sensitive to it because we had two suicides in our district this year,” he said. “We brought in a lot of speakers to educate and inform our community and we had staff training and student training in this issue.”

Overall, area school district officials and students alike agree the series can be beneficial in that it facilitates conversation about important topics. But they say those conversations need to include vital information they feel the creators of “13 Reasons Why” neglected to include in their story.

“There’s good to be pulled out of it,” Mr. Petretti said. “Kids think more about the impact of actions on other people. Everyone is so focused on themselves and don’t always concern themselves with the things they say or do. But some of the concerns that I saw were there was really no talk of mental health or mental illness, which always coincides with these sorts of things. That’s a big piece of it.”

Photo caption: Actors Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford in the new Netflix series ’13 Reasons Why’ in a scene from the show. School officials have sent letters to parents urging them to discuss the series, which is about teen suicide, with their children. (Credit: Netflix)

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