Increasing number of schools issue warnings about popular show '13 Reasons Why'
A popular new Netflix TV series centring on teen suicide has prompted a number of Canadian school boards to issue warnings to educators and parents about the show’s sensitive subject matter.
The series “13 Reasons Why” follows the story of high school student Hannah Baker and what led her to die by suicide. The show is based on the young adult novel by Jay Asher and has become one of Netflix’s most-buzzed about programs, particularly among teenagers.
But not everyone is a fan of the new series. School administrators and parents have expressed concerns about the graphic content and its portrayal of suicide.
School Mental Health Assist, an organization that works in conjunction with the Ontario Ministry of Education, issued a message about “13 Reasons Why” to all Ontario school boards
"Use of the Netflix series, “13 reasons Why,” as a teaching tool is not recommended,” it read. “The material is graphic and potentially triggering for vulnerable young people.”
The memo also included a number of talking points for educators to refer to if they’re asked about the show by their students.
School board warnings
Hamilton Wentworth District School Board was one of the first districts to immediately follow suit and they posted a message on their website to make families aware of the controversial show.
“It has graphic content related to suicide, glamorization of suicidal behaviour and negative portrayals of helping professionals, which may prevent youth from seeking help,” the memo said.
The school board advised against using the show as a teaching aid in classrooms and recommended that parents watch it with their children so they can address any concerns or questions they may have about it.
Andrea Poncia, coordinator of the Community Suicide Prevention Network, told CTV Ottawa on Wednesday that she agrees that communication is important for families when it comes to the sensitive topics tackled on “13 Reasons Why.”
“The most important thing is to really listen and be non-judgmental and empathetic,” Poncia said. “And not be afraid to ask if they’re thinking of suicide."
Other Ontario school boards that released similar memos concerning the show included, Durham District School Board, Peel District School Board and the Ottawa-Carleton School Board.
In Quebec, the English Montreal School Board and the Lester B. Pearson School Board in Quebec have also urged caution about the series to educators and parents.
Cindy Finn, the director of student services for the Lester B. Pearson School Board, told CTV Montreal on Thursday that teachers should use “approved” resources if they’re going to have conversations about suicide with their students.
“It’s important to focus the conversation on solving issues and moving towards solutions,” Finn said.
Finn’s school board is still waiting on official guidance on how to handle the TV show in classrooms from Quebec’s education ministry.
Mental health professionals have expressed unease about one scene where the main character, Hannah, has an unproductive experience talking to her school’s guidance counsellor.
Dr. Marshall Korenblum, the chief psychiatrist at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for Children and Families in Toronto, told CTV Toronto on Tuesday that portraying school staff and parents as “inept or stupid” in the series may have the harmful effect of deterring teenagers from seeking help.
“Now, admittedly a lot of teenagers view adults that way so one could argue that it’s realistic but the counsellor session she has with the school guidance counsellor is an example of everything someone shouldn’t do,” he said.
Korenblum did acknowledge, however, that “13 Reasons Why” has showed “courage” for trying to tackle difficult subjects such as bullying, rape culture and of course, suicide.
Carol Todd, founder of the “Amanda Todd Legacy,” which was created after her daughter died by suicide in 2012, said she also believes it’s necessary to talk about these subjects and praised the show for sparking a worldwide conversation about mental health, suicide, cyber abuse, revenge and sexual assault.
However, she said the criticisms about the show’s graphic content are justified because they can have a lasting impact on teenagers.
“Once you have something visually in your brain, it doesn’t really go away,” Todd told CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday.
Brian Yorkey, the show’s creator, told The Associated Press that the series is intended to be “difficult to watch” because these subjects are hard to cope with in reality.
“We wanted to say, 'These things are happening in kids' lives. You can keep quiet about them. You can keep kids from watching shows about them. It's not going to stop them from happening in kids' lives and you should be talking about that,’” he said.
Yorkey said the scenes depicting bullying, sexual assault and suicide needed to be “unflinching and raw.” He added that he disagrees with the accusations that the series glamorizes suicide.
“We did the exact opposite,” Yorkey said. “What we did was portray suicide and we portrayed it as very ugly and very damaging.”
Kate Walsh, the actress who plays Hannah’s mother in the show, has spoken out in defence of the show to a number of different U.S. media outlets recently. She told USA Today on Friday that she believes series creator Brian Yorkey was trying to make it as “real” and “accurate” as possible.
"I think that anything that's at all kept secret is inextricably intertwined with shame and secrecy, (and) should be outed," she said. "I can't speak for Brian, but I know that it was important for us to be as honest as we could."
Korenblum said parents shouldn’t try to ban their children from watching the show. Instead, he advised families view it together so they can discuss it.
“The cat is out of the bag. It’s out there so kids are going to watch it,” he said. “There’s no harm in talking about suicide but it’s got to be balanced, reasonable and include a message of hope and optimism.”
With files from CTV Toronto, CTV Ottawa, CTV Montreal and The Associated Press
Here are some resources for teens and parents who may need help: