13 Reasons Why: Schools chief says series is prompting students to harm themselves

This image released by Netflix shows Katherine Langford in a scene from the series, “13 Reasons Why,” about a teenager who commits suicide. The stomach-turning suicide scene has triggered criticism from some mental health advocates that it romanticizes suicide.” (Beth Dubber/Netflix via AP)

Palm Beach County educators are blaming 13 Reasons Why, a popular Netflix series, for an increase in students threatening suicide, mutilating themselves and being involuntarily institutionalized.

In a letter sent Friday afternoon to parents, Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa wrote that the series has been a cause of “an increase in youth at-risk behavior” in county schools. Schools officials say about a dozen incidents in the past week alone have been linked to the series.

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

The series, released March 31, tells the fictional story of the suicide of a 17-year-old girl, who leaves behind audio recordings for 13 people who she said were partially responsible for her death.

Based on a young adult novel of the same name, it has been criticized for romanticizing suicide, and in recent weeks schools across the country have warned parents about its potential effect on emotionally vulnerable teens.

But Avossa said the show’s effect on students goes beyond theoretical concerns.

In several cases, he warns parents, students in the county’s public schools have “articulated associations of their at-risk behavior to the 13 Reasons Why Netflix series.”

Among the acts believed to have been inspired at least in part by the series, he said, were “self-mutilation, threats of suicide, and multiple Baker Act incidents.” Baker Act incidents are cases in which people are involuntarily committed for mental health examinations due to concerns they suffer from a mental illness or may a risk to themselves.

Experts urge caution in letting teens watch Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why

A school district spokeswoman declined to give specifics about the incidents Avossa cited but said that district officials have become aware of at least a dozen cases in the past week of acts or threats of self-harm inspired by the series.

Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker in Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.” (Beth Dubber, Netflix)

“We’ve had a dozen in the past week,” spokeswoman Kathy Burstein said. “They believe it’s linked to the show.”

The National Association of School Psychologists recently issued its own warning about the series, pointing out that being exposed to accounts of suicidal acts is a “risk factor” for troubled teens.

“Research shows that exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide,” the association warns in a letter on its website.

Avossa’s letter urges parents to prevent “vulnerable youth,” particularly students with suicidal thoughts, from watching the series.

“Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies,” Avossa’s letter quotes the National Association of School Psychologists as saying.

One of the show’s writers has defended the show’s treatment of such wrenching themes, including a graphic depiction of the suicidal act.

“Facing these issues head-on — talking about them, being open about them — will always be our best defense against losing another life,” writer Nic Sheff wrote in a column for Vanity Fair.

“I stand behind what we did 100 percent,” Sheff added. “I know it was right, because my own life was saved when the truth of suicide was finally held up for me to see in all its horror – and reality.”

Avossa’s letter makes a point to say it is not intended to be a criticism of the show.

“This advisory is for awareness purposes only and is in no way intended to be an indictment of the show or Netflix,” it states.

Here is the complete letter:

April 28, 2017

Parent Advisory

SUBJECT: Important Message from Superintendent Robert M. Avossa, Ed.D.

REGARDING: “13 Reasons Why” Netflix Series

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 tag-line 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.”

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has issued cautions and considerations for educators and parents, as well as additional resources to support discussions about suicide with adolescents.

As an online series, it is possible many parents are unaware of the popularity of this show. As such, the District would like to share this resource and encourage parents to discuss its content if their teen or adolescent has viewed the show. This advisory is for awareness purposes only and is in no way intended to be an indictment of the show or Netflix.

In part, NASP cautions:

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 her suicide death.

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. Doing so presents an opportunity to help them process the issues addressed, consider the consequences of certain choices, and reinforce the message that suicide is not a solution to problems and that help is available. This is particularly important for adolescents who are isolated, struggling, or vulnerable to suggestive images and storylines. Research shows that exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide.

The complete NASP recommendations and cautions, as well as additional support materials, can be found on our District home page, www.PalmBeachSchools.org.

If adults or teens know someone struggling with thoughts of suicide, call 1-800-273 TALK (8255) or text START to 741741.

Sincerely,
Robert M. Avossa, Ed.D.
Superintendent

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