A Florida schools superintendent told parents in a letter that his district has seen a rapid rise in at-risk behavior at elementary and middle schools — including self-harming and suicide threats — in the wake of a graphic Netflix series about a 17-year-old girl’s suicide called “13 Reasons Why.”
The series, which debuted March 31, is based on a 2007 young adult novel and includes detailed scenes of young people harming themselves, including that of a teen who cuts her wrists with a razor in a bathtub and her blood is seen pouring out as she struggles to breathe. With the first episode released about a month ago, the series has sparked warnings from mental health counselors and others expressing concern about copycat behavior and the glorification of suicide by vulnerable young people. The National Association of School Psychologists released guidance to parents on how to lead the discussions along with other resources.
Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert M. Avossa wrote in the letter sent April 28 (which you can read in full below):
As a father of a teenager and tween, I am very concerned about a dangerous trend we have observed in our schools in recent days. School District personnel have observed an increase in youth at-risk behavior at the elementary and middle school levels to include self-mutilation, threats of suicide, and multiple Baker Act incidents. Students involved in the recent incidents have articulated associations of their at-risk behavior to the “13 Reasons Why” Netflix series. The Netflix website tagline summarizes the series theme as follows: “After a teenage girl’s perplexing suicide, a classmate receives a series of tapes that unravel the mystery of her tragic choice.”
Asked about the superintendent’s letter, a Netflix spokesperson sent an email with the following statement from the company:
We’ve heard from our members that 13 Reasons Why has opened up a dialogue among parents, teens, schools and mental health advocates around the intense themes and difficult topics depicted in the show. We knew the material covered sensitive topics, as the book did when it was published in 2007, and we worked with mental health experts to show how these issues impact teens in real and dramatic ways. With this in mind, we gave the series a TV-MA rating, added explicit warnings on the three most graphic episodes, produced an after show, “Beyond the Reasons,” that delves deeper into some of the tougher topics portrayed, as well as created a global website (13reasonswhy.info) to help people find local mental health resources. Entertainment has always been the ultimate connector and we hope that 13 Reasons Why can serve as a catalyst for conversation.
Selena Gomez, the actress/singer who co-produced the series, was quoted in an Associated Press article as saying that she was expecting a backlash from the series: “It’s going to come no matter what. It’s not an easy subject to talk about. But I’m very fortunate with how it’s doing.” The same story quoted writer Brian Yorkey, who won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for the musical “Next to Normal,” which grappled with mental illness, as saying: “Many people are accusing the show of glamorizing suicide and I feel strongly — and I think everyone who made the show — feel very strongly that we did the exact opposite. What we did was portray suicide and we portrayed it as very ugly and very damaging.”
In a brief interview, Avossa texted that officials at schools in his district have learned about at least a dozen episodes over a brief period involving young people who have either harmed themselves or threatened to do so, and cited the show when discussing their behavior.
“We had counselors, teachers, principals report self-mutilating ideation” over a dozen times “in a very short time frame,” he said. It was, he said, a significant increase from what schools officials usually see. “We have 200,000 kids in our district so we always get some, but over a much longer time frame,” he said.
Avossa said his letter to parents was not an “indictment” of the show or Netflix, but he warned parents to be aware of the show and what it portrays, and he pointed out that the National Association of School Psychologists had issued a cautionary statement about it, expressing concern of copycat behavior by at-risk young people who watch the show and providing resources for parents to help guide conversations. The long statement on the show (see in full below) provides resources “and considerations” for parents to help guide conversation and says in part:
Producers for the show say they hope the series can help those who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide. However, the series, which many teenagers are binge watching without adult guidance and support, is raising concerns from suicide prevention experts about the potential risks posed by the sensationalized treatment of youth suicide. The series graphically depicts a suicide death and addresses in wrenching detail a number of difficult topics, such a bullying, rape, drunk driving, and slut shaming. The series also highlights the consequences of teenagers witnessing assaults and bullying (i.e., bystanders) and not taking action to address the situation (e.g., not speaking out against the incident, not telling an adult about the incident).
We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies. They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character. Unfortunately, adult characters in the show, including the second school counselor who inadequately addresses Hannah’s pleas for help, do not inspire a sense of trust or ability to help. Hannah’s parents are also unaware of the events that lead to her suicide death.
Avossa was not the only superintendent to issue a warning about the show. In Canada, for example, Variety reported that the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board said on its website that the show was guilty of the “glamorization of suicidal behavior and negative portrayals of helping professionals.” It also said that School Mental Health Assist, an organization meant to aid school boards in Ontario, actually sent a memo urging teachers not to broadcast the series as educational material.
The Washington Post’s television critic, Hank Stuever, wrote that the entire premise of the show is an “unbelievable and selfish conceit, a protracted example of the teenager who fantasizes how everyone will react when she’s gone.” He said in part:
The story — as first told by Asher’s novel and now developed into this series by Pulitzer-winning playwright Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”) — strikes me as remarkably, even dangerously, naive in its understanding of suicide, up to and including a gruesome, penultimate scene of Hannah opening her wrists in a bathtub. Whatever “Thirteen Reasons Why” gets right about teen tendencies toward melodrama fades as the series fumbles around with tone and emotional accuracy. The characters very rarely come across as real, perhaps because the story itself is so contrived.
Here’s the full letter from the superintendent, and following this are recommendations from the National Association of School Psychologistst:
And here is the release from the National Association of School Psychologists: