April 27, 2017
by Dr. Bill Hudson, Head of School
The death of a child, under any circumstance, is tragic. As a parent and educator, my greatest fear has always been suicide. I’d like to make you aware of a recently released Netflix series called 13 Reasons Why. The series has prompted significant controversy and concern among parents, educators, and mental health professionals.
The show depicts a central character who dies by suicide, leaving behind 13 tapes for different people in her life whose actions (or lack of actions) affected her negatively. Mental health professionals have expressed concerns that the show, which has been dubbed the “latest teenage Netflix binge craze,” fails to make any mention of the underlying mental illness that is present for the vast majority of young people struggling with suicidal ideation and instead may lead young people to believe that other people’s actions are mainly to blame for a suicide. The show has also received intense criticism for romanticizing suicide by portraying the main character as a powerful martyr who is “trying to teach others a lesson.” The show also fails to adhere to the “Recommendation for Reporting on Suicide,” developed for media outlets by prevention specialists who discourage sensational headlines or describing suicides in graphic detail. The series also includes several graphic sexual assault scenes.
The series is meant to be a cautionary tale. Netflix and the directors say their intent is to bring teen suicide to the forefront and spur conversation, education, and preventative measures. They are also quick to point out that the central character is not meant to be heroic, but her death should be viewed as a tragedy. However, I am alarmed by how the line between reality and dramatic license has been blurred by the series on such a consequential topic.
I feel a responsibility to make parents aware of this series and provide resources that you can use to make decisions about how to handle the topic or process conversations in your own families. The National Association of School Psychologists has drafted a piece advising that vulnerable students with any degree of suicidal ideation do not watch the series. After watching several episodes, I strongly recommend that if teens insist on watching, they should do so in the presence of an adult.
It is important to actively counter negative messages that may be derived from the series (e.g., that adults may not take concerns seriously or may ignore or minimize the struggles a young person is experiencing). While I recommend that students avoid the series, I strongly encourage parents to ask their children if they have heard of it and invite them to share their thoughts. It is important to note that raising the issue of suicide does not increase the risk or plant the idea. On the contrary, it creates the opportunity to offer help.
Here are some additional links that underscore the value to young people of having adequate access to the facts and resources around these critical mental health issues:
- 13 Reasons Why: Considerations from the National Association of School Psychologists
- Talking Tips for 13 Reasons Why
- Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide Parent Resources
- Save a Friend: Tips for Teens to Prevent Suicide
- Common Sense Media 13 Reasons Why Review
At MPA, we work very hard to nurture and sustain a safe, supportive environment that is warm and welcoming. We hope that every child feels known, understood, and loved here. Thank you for entrusting your children to us and know that we value our relationship with you. If you have concerns, please feel free to share them with a division director or me personally.