Netflix’s ‘13 Reasons Why’ has gone viral. So has alarm over its depiction of suicide
First, “13 Reasons Why,” the Netflix series about a high school student who commits suicide, went viral.
Now, it’s the alarm about the series that has caught fire.
Schools are sending e-mails home. The National Association of School Psychologists issued a statement warning parents of vulnerable youth. In Framingham, at an acute residential and partial hospitalization program for teens with mental health issues, the clinical director is working to make sure the kids don’t discuss the series among themselves.
“There is a contagion factor when a school has a suicide,” said Dana Zais, the campus clinical director at the Wayside Youth & Family Support Network, “and this show is causing the contagion to happen.”
Her program regularly gets referrals from emergency service teams, she said, and the accompanying notes often say that the child who was contemplating or who had attempted suicide referenced the show as something they can relate to.
The Netflix series, released March 31, revolves around a student named Hannah who decides to kill herself and leaves behind audio recordings for 13 people she says played a role in her decision to take her life.
“Hey, it’s Hannah, Hannah Baker,” the first tape begins. “Settle in, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life, more specifically why my life ended. And if you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.”
The show features graphic and intense depictions of rape and suicide. Hannah slits her wrists and bleeds to death in a bathtub. Suicide-prevention experts told the Globe that while they are glad the taboo topic is getting attention, all expressed extreme distress that the show presents Hannah, 17, as having no options other than taking her life.
In 2014, suicide was the second leading cause of death for children and young adults ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I very much fear that we are going to look back at this period of time — March, April, and May — and see some sad statistics,” said Eileen Davis, director of Call2Talk a confidential mental health and emotional support call line.
This week, with many parents unaware that their children, some as young as 8, are watching the show — often alone in their rooms — local school districts began e-mailing families and guardians.
On Tuesday, David Fleishman, the superintendent of schools in Newton, where three students committed suicide over a several-month period in 2013 and 2014, alerted the school community to the show and listed resources.
Fleishman told the Globe he’s never before written to parents about a TV show, but felt compelled after urgent e-mails from two middle school teachers.
“I’m not trying to be over-dramatic or insensitive,” one of the teachers wrote. “It is just hard to picture many of our kids watching this alone and not discussing it with adults.”
On Wednesday and Thursday families in Brookline, Medway, and Natick got e-mails.
“This series has been criticized for romanticizing suicide, for blaming suicide on the survivors of suicide loss, for suggesting that suicide is a common and acceptable response to adolescent struggles, and for depicting school guidance counselors as unresponsive and unhelpful,” Natick’s superintendent, Peter Sanchioni, wrote.
“There are several key points you may want to discuss with your child(ren) who have seen this series to counter some of the negative messages: There are healthy ways to cope with the difficult circumstances that Hannah experienced; Most people who experience depression, trauma, and bullying do not die by suicide – they reach out to others for help and lead normal, healthy lives; . . . When you die you do not get to make a movie or talk to people anymore.”
Many parents are only now learning about the show — even though kids have been watching it for weeks.
Robyn Parets’s scenario was common: The West Roxbury mother watched an “intense” report about “13 Reasons Why” on a morning TV show, went to discuss it with her 17-year-old, only to learn that her son Noah was already quite familiar with it.
“He said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve watched the whole thing,’ ” Parets said.
Noah, a high school senior and a trainee at Boston Ballet, said he found the show entertaining but more graphic than necessary. The Netflix series is based on Jay Asher’s 2007 YA novel of the same name, and in the book, Hannah dies from an overdose, not a dramatic wrist slitting.
“I was watching it on my computer so I turned it away and just listened,” Noah said. “It was a lot to take in. People I’ve talked to said they couldn’t watch it.”
In Andover, 14-year-old Maura Starr told her mom — who hadn’t known that she was watching — that the show was sad. But, she added, Hannah causes “all kinds of drama for herself.”
Netflix did not respond to a request for comment from the Globe, but it has issued a statement in response to the backlash. “We support the unflinching vision of the show’s creators, who engaged the careful advice of medical professionals in the scriptwriting process.”
Netflix included a 29-minute extra feature in its series release, in which the show’s cast and others, including singer-actress Selena Gomez, an executive producer, discuss the issues raised, and the Web address of an informational site with resource links (13reasonswhy.info).
But even as concern over the show grows, the series’ ominous catch phrase — “Welcome to your tape” — has become a jokey meme.
As in this Thursday tweet from @kenzymarieee23: “Professor: the final will be cumulative.
Me: welcome to your tape.”
Or this tweet from @tordan_jaylor: “people who talk to me when i have my headphones in: welcome to your tape.”
The meme itself has caused a backlash for being insensitive.
As the series generates more news, mainly now from adults warning kids about watching it, Milton ninth grader Laine Hern said that it serves a purpose by raising awareness.
“A lot of teenagers joke and say, ‘I want to kill myself,’ ” she said. “This will make people stop saying that.”