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Netflix series ‘13 Reasons Why’ opens dialogue on teen suicide in SLO County

“13 Reasons Why” follows high school student Clay Jensen, who finds a box on his porch filled with recordings made by Hannah Baker, a fellow student who killed herself two weeks earlier.
“13 Reasons Why” follows high school student Clay Jensen, who finds a box on his porch filled with recordings made by Hannah Baker, a fellow student who killed herself two weeks earlier. Beth Dubber/Netflix

Netflix’s controversial new series “13 Reasons Why” has many debating whether the show — based on a novel by local author Jay Asher — is appropriate for its largely teenage fan base, with some citing concerns about the show’s graphic representation of teen suicide, sexual assault, drug use and bullying.

In response, Netflix added additional warnings to the streaming series Monday.

Asher, who lives in San Luis Obispo, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview this week. But before the show aired, Asher said in March that he hoped the show would encourage more dialogue between teens and parents.

The series starts with high school student Clay Jensen, who finds a box on his porch filled with recordings made by Hannah Baker, a fellow student who killed herself two weeks earlier. It follows both Jensen and Baker and reveals — through the tapes — why Baker ultimately committed suicide.

The show is rated for mature audiences — commonly defined as ages 17 and older — but that hasn’t stopped scores of teens from watching the popular series (by comparison, the novel, published in 2007, was intended for ages 12 and older).

This is one of the key reasons schools and mental health professionals throughout the country have issued warnings regarding “13 Reasons Why.” Others, however, say the show opens up a dialogue that could help raise awareness and prevent suicide.

Caution advised

The National Association of School Psychologists has cautioned “vulnerable youth” (i.e. those who have had thoughts of suicide) against watching the series because it could “romanticize the choices made by the characters” or cause them to “develop revenge fantasies.”

“While many youth are resilient and capable of differentiating between a TV drama and real life, engaging in thoughtful conversations with them about the show is vital,” the group wrote on its website. “This is particularly important for adolescents who are isolated, struggling, or vulnerable to suggestive images and storylines.”

Schools throughout the country, including in San Luis Obispo County, have also urged caution regarding the popular series.

Mesa Middle School in Arroyo Grande shared a Facebook post last week — labeled “IMPORTANT PARENT INFORMATION” — that “strongly encouraged” parents to research the series before allowing their children to watch it.

The post reads: “We want to bring to your attention a current Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” that has become a heavy topic at Mesa Middle School. The series addresses the topics of teen suicide, rape, and drugs (among others). We take this topic very seriously and every student’s well-being is our number one priority. We STRONGLY encourage you to research this program (based upon a novel). We are concerned about the questions and feelings this series may raise with students, especially if they are watching it unsupervised. The series is very graphic and explicit and questionably appropriate for middle school-aged students.”

The school has also posted information about the series on its website, including a “talking points” document from Suicide Awareness Voices of Education and the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Mesa Middle School Principal Brett Gimlin declined to comment on what prompted the school to share its concerns about the series. Calls to the school’s counseling department were not returned.

Conversation starter

Despite some of the concerns, other mental health professionals say the show offers a valuable opportunity for parents and kids to connect and discuss what is often a taboo subject for families.

“Obviously the discussion we’ve had here is very positive because of the dialogue the show opens up,” said Frank Warren, prevention and outreach manager with the San Luis Obispo County mental health behavioral and prevention division. “If this opens up a dialogue for families about mental health and those pressures, that’s a great thing.”

Warren said he believes some of the recent pushback against the show is due to a divide in how parents and their children relate to media.

“It’s unfortunate that we don’t really have this conversation with other movies, comic books, or really concern ourselves with it for any other genre, but I think this does present it in more realistic and starker terms than some parents may be used to,” he said. “I think reality really appeals to a younger generation, but when reality is depicted in these stark terms it can be alarming for parents.”

Warren did advise parents of middle school and younger children to supervise their children if they do choose to allow them to watch the show because of the heavier themes.

Shannon McOuat, community outreach manager with Transitions-Mental Health Association, said the organization, which regularly connects with schools regarding mental health awareness, has so far not heard of any local issues related to the series. She emphasized the importance of making at-risk kids aware of the resources like the organization’s 24-hour hotline, 800-783-0607.

If this opens up a dialogue for families about mental health and those pressures, that’s a great thing.

Frank Warren, San Luis Obispo County Mental Health Services

Asher so far has not responded to the criticism. Multiple emails and phones calls for comment went unanswered, and attempts to contact his publicist were unsuccessful. When reached Tuesday, his wife said Asher is not commenting on the recent controversy surrounding the show.

In interviews prior to the release of the Netflix series, Asher told The Tribune he hoped it would generate conversation about its more controversial themes, just like the book had.

“I think parents are going to watch (the show) and go, ‘I need to make sure that I’m asking what’s going on and not just assuming everything’s fine,’ ” he said in March. “A student watching it is going to look at the pain and confusion of these (fictional) parents and go, ‘I need to be more open with them.’ 

Mandy Teefey, president of Kicked to the Curb Productions, which produced the show, said in the same interview with The Tribune that though the series could generate controversy, she felt it would be worth it if that conversation helped bring attention to an often misrepresented issue.

“When my husband watched the last episode, he shut the laptop and said, ‘You are going to get so much shit for (this),’ and I said, ‘Good. Because you know what? They need to talk about (this subject matter).’ 

Teefey also said visitors to the set of “13 Reasons Why” included therapists, attempted suicide survivors and parents of kids who had committed suicide. She did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Sarah Linn contributed to this report.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

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