Schools warn about teen suicide show
DARIEN — The new Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” takes place in a small, suburban town that could be anywhere...even Darien.
But the setting of the series isn’t the only thing hitting close to home, rather, it is the way it addresses issues important to teens, such as suicide — something that has prompted school districts across the state and country to caution parents about the controversial show.
“Although many of our students have the coping skills and maturity to process these challenging topics, we are most concerned about those who are vulnerable and may find this challenging content overwhelming or confusing,” read a letter sent to
Darien High School parents. “We are also alarmed by the portrayal of the school as a place where a student’s voice would be ignored because we want our students to feel safe to share their fears.”
The series, based on a 2007 book by Jay Asher, follows a boy in the wake of his classmate’s suicide; she left 13 tapes to 13 people who hurt her during her life and he is listening to the tapes she left, one of which is addressed to him.
Besides New Canaan, local school districts including New Canaan, Danbury, Weston, New Milford, Newtown and Norwalk have sent letters to parents notifying them of the popular show.
“We are reaching out with this information so that you are aware of the content and may take the opportunity to open dialogue with your children about the series and the feelings it may be bringing to the surface,” said the Darien letter.
In the series, adults are not shown as a resource to help students in need, something that really troubled Susan Bliss, the school climate coordinator in New Canaan.
“There was a lack of messages in help-seeking behaviors that was a major concern, because we know [seeking help] is possible,” she said. “It’s important to have kids reach out for help and that wasn’t something conveyed in this particular show. There were no positive messages for people to trust adults and reach out to adults. Even the school counselor in this situation was not helpful to the girl. For vulnerable kids, they can identify with these figures.”
Bliss said she was also concerned by the romanticization of suicide, particularly as a form of revenge and without addressing its mental health components, as well as the graphic portrayal of rape, drug use and drinking.
It’s the portrayal of these activities onscreen that raise concerns about the show, despite the fact the novel the show was based off of was published 10 years ago. According to Kathleen Crouse, teen services librarian at New Canaan, the book has not been under nearly as much scrutiny as the show.
“Based on what I’ve heard about the series versus the book, one of the main differences is how graphic and visual the series is based on the audience,” she said. “I think the book, like most books, is able to delve more into the psychology behind certain characters and of certain things going on, so it’s a little more thoughtful that way... I don’t think the book is without its problems and I’ve seen some of that in reviews and people talking about it now, but I haven’t heard as many concerns about the book as the show.”
Despite its problems, most school officials admit the show has its benefits in that it is a jumping-off point for conversations about topics like suicide, mental illness and sexual assault.
While worried the show could trigger copycat behavior Vanessa Elias, a Wilton mom and volunteer with the Southwest Connecticut National Alliance on Mental Illness, also believes it could have a positive effect by increasing awareness about the issues it presents.
“The scary thing is how it is showing an easy out for kids to hurt those who have hurt them,” said Elias, who added her 15-year-old daughter watched the show. “But the positive side is that the show offers an opportunity to talk about something that’s highly stigmatized and taboo in our society.”
Anna Quinn contributed to this report.