Controversial Netflix series inspires dialogue on how to discuss suicide, mental health with youths

By CAITLIN ANDREWS
Monitor staff ~ Friday, May 12, 2017

Jonathan Hopkins heard about the series 13 Reasons Why from his 12-year-old daughter.

She wanted to watch it because her friends were talking about it. The pastor at the Concordia Lutheran Church was wary; he knew the series dealt with bullying, sexual assault and suicide.

The whole family sat down to watch it the day after the show came out. It took one episode of the series for Hopkins to decide it was too much for his daughter.

But he ended up watching the rest of the series, which includes a rape scene and a graphic depiction of main character Hannah Baker’s death.

“It was a bit traumatizing, to be honest,” he said. “(Baker’s death) was very much in your face, and I’m an adult.”

Hopkins, a Concord resident, was even more shocked when he discussed the series with his daughter Phoebe and the bullying, the sexual assault, the absent parents depicted in the show was not a surprise, who admitted she knew six people in her grade who hurt themselves.

He struggled to make sense of it all, then decided a conversation needed to happen – not just between him and his daughter – but as many people in the Concord community as possible.

Hopkins created a community discussion with a panel of experts in suicide prevention, set to take place June 6 at 7 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Concord.

The event is indicative of a greater conversation suicide prevention advocates and local school districts are having about the show, which some argue breaks every rule in the book for how you’re supposed to discuss suicide and mental health. And though Netflix patrons may have already “binge-watched” the series, advocates are still encouraging adults to take the show – and what children are saying about it – seriously.

Ken Norton, executive director for the state’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said his office has continued to field calls from parents and schools who are concerned about the series. Although he hasn’t watched the series personally, he said the details he’s heard are enough for him to call the show “irresponsible” in it’s portrayal of suicide.

A big concern is the show’s detailed and bloody depiction of suicide. Norton said producers have argued showing the character’s death in a detailed manner was meant to dissuade people from considering suicide.

“There’s no scientific data that’s the case,” Norton said. “If anything, those kinds of portrayals can be triggering to some people, can act as a contributing factor to why someone commits suicide.”

Even more worrisome to Norton was the potential for a contagion factor, or the risk that those watching the show who already were having suicidal thoughts will consider acting on them.

To make parents more aware of the issue, several schools around the state have been sending out letters and emails to parents. Bow superintendent Dean Cascadden said the email he sent out was copied from an informational letter from the Sanborn Regional High School councilors.

The response, he said, has ranged from positive to accusations of being “alarmist” by one parent, but Cascadden said he’s glad he sent the it because it inspired conversation. One interaction stood out to him: A high school student telling him it was unfair for the school to warn about “13 Reasons” when Romeo and Juliet is part of the curriculum. Cascadden admitted he has not watched the series.

Goffstown police Lieutenant Keith Chauvette has been teaching suicide prevention at Goffstown High School for three years, and knew it was important to be proactive in leading the conversation with students. He spoke just this week with sophomore students during their health classes, and the school’s website has a posted notice about the show with a list of talking points for parents. That list can be found at save.org/13-reasons-why/.

What struck Chauvette, who has not seen the show, from his conversation with students was how few seemed to actually enjoy the show or found it to be realistic.

“I’ve heard a lot of people saying they were into it, but most of the classes I spoke to doesn’t watch it, or finds it too far-fetched,” he said. “The biggest thing for them was that it’s too dramatic, and didn’t focus enough on what her friends could have done for her. There was too much focus on the bad, not the good … the idea that everything was hopeless.”

Chauvette said one scene in the show, where a guidance councilor fails to pick up on hints Baker is giving about her plans to kill herself, struck students as being particularly unrealistic, something he tried to emphasize while talking to them about what resources are available to them.

“I guess from their own experience it was outside the realm of possibility,” he said.

But Hopkins said the conversations he had with his young daughter after she expressed interest in the show opened his eyes to the kinds of bullying students are facing today. And though he found 13 Reasons to be graphic and emotionally upsetting, Hopkins doesn’t think the show should be dismissed, or that parents and children shouldn’t watch it.

“Our children are dealing with just incredibly difficult things,” he said. “… But to say your children just shouldn’t watch the show is almost another way of dismissing them, of saying what you’re thinking doesn’t matter. Clearly, if kids are talking about this, something about this book or this show speaks to them, and you have to ask why.”

Enter Hopkins’ panel discussion, cosponsored by the Greater Concord Interfaith Council and the New Hampshire Council of Churches. The event is meant to help parents who aren’t aware of the show or who are struggling to talk to their children about the show, and will feature local speakers such as Peter Evers, the CEO of Riverbend Community Mental Health and Dr. Steve Cauble, a child psychiatrist at New Hampshire Hospital. Hopkins is still looking for someone who works in the school system to join the panel.

The one out-of-state panelist will be Debbie Zegas Berman, a Connecticut mother who tells the story of her daughter Alexa’s suicide through her website shemattered.com. In a column that appeared in the May 7 edition of the Monitor, she told readers how her daughter was like 13 Reason’s Baker – “a bit different, quirky, and was made fun of behind her back by many of her classmates.”

Berman wrote in her column that her daughter’s death came at a time when talking about suicide was taboo, and she felt she couldn’t talk about it. Now, 9 years later, she’s hoping parents will use 13 Reasons as a way to break that silence with her children.

“Most importantly, kids need an opportunity to discuss these issues with adults,” she wrote. “I hope to provide this opportunity using a real-life case as an educational tool that reveals the impact of bullying and suicide, but also provides alternatives, prevention strategies and hope.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

How to help

If you or someone who know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available at the following places:

NH Hotlines:

Headrest Teenline: 1-800-639-6095 (24 Hour Line)

Headrest: 1-800-639-6095 (24 Hour Line)

National Hotlines:

Friends for Survival: 1-800-646-7322 (9am-7pm PST, Noon-10pm EST)

The Trevor Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386 (866-4-U-Trevor) for LGBTQ Youth

Military Hotline: 1-800-959-8277