Concern grows alongside popularity of Netflix show involving suicide
Healthy solutions, resources for help need to be known by teens watching program
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A package wrapped in brown paper waits on a high-school student’s doorstep, his name scrawled across the top.
After finding it, he turns it around in his hands, examining it with confusion spread across his face.
Inside his house, he opens it to find a series of cassettes, so he searches for his dad’s boombox. He places the tape labeled “1” inside it and presses play.
“Hey, it’s Hannah, Hannah Baker,” a voice sounds, and he sits back in shock. Hannah had died by suicide only a short while before.
In Netflix’s new series, 13 Reasons Why, based on a best-selling novel by Jay Asher, Clay Jensen receives a set of tapes from his friend Hannah Baker.
Each of the tapes is dedicated to someone who did something to Hannah, all of which add up to her wanting to take her own life.
Every episode has a new tape, showing what happened before her death and how people are doing after it.
Although this is a very popular show, mental health professionals and suicide prevention experts are calling the series out on its adaptation of teen suicide.
The American Association of Suicidology (AAS) has created guidelines on how the media should cover suicide, and some are saying that they were not followed in the making of the show.
This could be a big concern, as suicide is the second leading cause of death in Minnesota for people ages 15-34, according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.
The series, released on March 31, is quickly gaining popularity. Refinery29 reported that a social media research firm, Fizziology, found that 13 Reasons Why had been tweeted more than 3.2 million times in the first week it was out. This makes it the most-tweeted streaming TV series this year.
In attempts to address the growing anxiety in viewers and back up their artistic choices, Netflix recently added a 29-minute-long extra called 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons to the show’s “Trailers and More” page.
In this episode, actors, crew and mental health experts explain why they made the show the way they did.
In a recent interview with ABC News, Dan Reidenberg of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education talked about his issue with the new show.
“There is a great concern that I have,” he said, “that young people are going to over identify with Hannah in the series and we actually may see more suicides as a result of this television series.”
The AAS’s media recommendations for reporting about suicide specifically say not to describe a death or show grieving families due to the risk of suicide in vulnerable people.
The final episode, however, starts with a viewer discretion warning for “graphic depictions of violence and suicide.”
During this finale, Hannah Baker is shown taking her life and her parents finding her shortly thereafter.
“I was surprised at how graphic it was,” Nicole Muzzy, a Twin Cities-based licensed mental health professional, said about the scene. “I don’t know that we needed to actually see that, cause we would’ve known [what happened to Hannah].”
Another AAS recommendation is to avoid describing a suicide note left behind; any added attention to the victim could seem appealing to those considering taking their own lives.
Most of 13 Reasons Why, however, shows Clay Jensen listening to Hannah’s tapes, her version of a suicide note.
Victor Schwartz, Chief Medical Officer of the JED Foundation, spoke to NBC News about how Hannah Baker used the cassettes to have people remember her and realize how much they hurt her.
“The tendency to imagine you can kill yourself as a way to get back at people feels like an adolescent fantasy,” he said. “It underlies so much of the narrative arch of the story.”
An executive producer of the show, Selena Gomez, explained the reasoning behind how the series portrayed this issue when she appeared in 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons.
“We wanted to do it in a way where it was honest, and we wanted to make something that can hopefully help people, because suicide should never ever be an option,” she said.
Hannah had emotional difficulties when faced with hardships at school which can be true for other young adults.
Problems can cause much greater stress for suicidal teens than adults, as they don’t think that their issues will ever end. Sometimes, the only solution they can see is taking their own life.
A study, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, found that when the media showed solutions for problems instead of suicide, suicide rates decreased.
In the AAS’s tips for journalists, it was also recommended to offer hope to the audience. But some see 13 Reasons Why as offering no hope.
“The show actually doesn’t present a viable alternative to suicide,” Reidenberg said to ABC News. “The show doesn’t talk about mental illness or depression, doesn’t name those words. My thoughts about the series are that it’s probably done more harm than any good.”
Schwartz had similar thoughts when speaking with NBC News.
“Sequences of terrible things happen to Hannah, and we don’t get a feel for her internalization until she kills herself,” he said. “None of that stuff is made clear, because it’s focused on the horrible things people have done to her. The whole thing is an extended revenge fantasy.”
The show’s creators used a controversial scene in which Hannah is talking to a school counselor. In this scene, she tries telling the counselor about the horrible things that have happened to her, with one in particular.
This situation is hard for the both of them; neither of them know exactly what to say.
Hannah leaves with her problems unsolved.
This scene is said to have been used to show what could have happened if the counselor had known how to help Hannah.
“What was really distressing, I think for me, from a clinical standpoint, is that they did show Hannah reaching out to the school counselor,” Muzzy said. “I interpreted that as so even if you do ask for help, it’s not going to be enough.”
Kristin Overton, M.A. guidance counselor, talked about how she would act differently in the situation. “I think that the biggest thing that…counselors can do is to stay calm and to let them know that there is hope and that they are supported and loved and wanted here,” she said.
Many schools in Minnesota have contacted parents about 13 Reasons Why. They want parents to talk to their kids about the show due to its serious topic of suicide and violence.
The May 2017 issue of Minnehaha’s M.A. Counseling Newsletter also included a message to parents about the show, labeling it a “sensitive subject matter.” They listed resources for the issue of suicide and encouraged conversations within families.
The M.A. Counseling Department has also taken a web seminar on the show and how to discuss the issues brought up in it.Despite what opinion on the show they may have, people are agreeing that talking and being open with others about the issue of suicide is necessary.
Muzzy expanded on this by explaining the impact that discussing the show could have.
“I think just having a conversation,” she said, “even just if one of those incidents happened … that I think is enough to make any parent want to or any friend of somebody who’s experienced bullying or rape … to want to reach out and do something.”
If anyone watches the show, Overton recommends that families watch it together.
“I think the most important thing is to have a trusted adult that you can talk about it with,” Overton said about watching the show.
Freshman Maggie Daniel has also seen the show and talked about how it impacted her. “It was extremely eye-opening and helped me see what a person who commits suicide goes through” she said.
Katherine Langford, who plays Hannah Baker, also gave advice to her audience in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons.
“Reach out,” she said. “Even if you feel like Hannah in that you can’t talk to your parents or you don’t want to tell anyone at school because you’re embarrassed, call a hotline. Talk to someone anonymously. Just talk to someone, because the moment you start talking about it, it gets easier. And just know that there’s life beyond what you’re feeling at the moment. I promise it will get better. There is an entire future full of incredible things waiting for you. And if you go, you don’t get to see it.”
Now in flash-drive form, the tapes are pulled up on a computer. The couple, who’s waiting for them to start, hold each other’s hand for support, and a pained expression appears on the woman’s face.
“Hey, it’s Hannah, Hannah Baker,” her voice sounds, and her parents brace themselves for what’s to come.