I’m no stranger to suicide.
I had a close relative almost die of it when I was 15. There weren’t 13 reasons why this individual almost died. There was nothing remotely simple about the incident.
So I get frustrated and worried when I see pop culture simplify, romanticize or glorify suicide.
That’s why I refuse to watch popular Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.”
Based on the young adult novel of the same name, the show revolves around Hannah Baker, who died by suicide. She leaves audio tapes explaining the reasons why 13 individuals had some role in her death.
On each side of the tapes, Hannah illustrates the life of an isolated teenager who had been shamed while trying to figure out a way to meaningfully connect with anyone.
The Netflix show takes it one step further, right into a very dangerous territory. While the book does mention Hannah’s death, the show graphically depicts the suicide.
One of the show’s writers defended the explicit scene, saying that seeing the reality of the act would be a deterrent.
Maybe, but we are talking about kids, ones that relate to Hannah in ways adults can’t see. And like many teen dramas, younger audiences are watching the show without parental guidance.
That’s terrifying, because a phenomena known as “suicide contagion” is a very real thing.
“Direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults,” says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It also can “trigger” a traumatic response.
The graphic nature of the show has caused such a controversy, many mental health organizations and school districts, like the Fort Worth School District, have issued responses and resources.
“We ask parents to be aware of the impact the program has had on day-to-day conversations teens and youth are having with one another. Teens and youth, because of their developmental age, sometimes don’t know what to do with information learned in peer-to-peer conversations,” says the FWISD response.
FWISD Guidance and Counseling Director Kathryn Everest rightfully worries about the effect the shows has on Fort Worth students.
“The show glorifies suicide, but also gives explicit details,” she said.
That dangerous combination has spurred copycat behaviors.
“We have seen several incidents of students recording, writing or otherwise telling their friends how they have impacted their decision to die by suicide — as young as age 12,” FWISD critical incident specialist Cindy Bethany wrote in an email. “We have seen a spike in suicide risk screenings meaning students have made an outcry.”
Some parents have read the book and signed off on having their children watch the show, unaware of the changes.
Everest says parents need to “understand the series is much more graphic and painful than the book. It’s not one in the same” and be responsible to converse with kids about hard topics.
The response gives resources for students, reminding them of the multiple avenues FWISD students can reach out and talk to someone.
She also makes sure to “be vigilant about educating teachers to be vigilant” with training at the front of the year, but she hates that they are coming into the summer months.
She believes the popularity of the show isn’t dying down, and the latecomers to the series could be more susceptible to influence.
And both the book and series are missing a vital component to mental health issues in teenagers — a way to get help.
“Unfortunately, ‘13 Reasons Why’ doesn’t add to the conversation about where to go to for help. In fact, it appears all of the adults on this series are clueless about mental illness and suicide,” Bethany wrote. “My hope is that every time a student feels hopeless enough to make an outcry they will reach out to an adult.”
For every clueless faculty member, there are 10 more happy to listen. For every mean kid, there is one friendly student.
No one suffering from suicidal ideation is alone, especially in a high school.
Hannah Baker’s story is fiction and though some of the things she went through do unfortunately happen, no one’s story is confined to words on a page or pictures on a screen.
It is always much more.
Sara Pintilie is an editorial writer for the Star-Telegram.