In recent years, television programs have made a point to push the envelope, with several showrunners seemingly emboldened by being hosted on subscription-only networks like Amazon or Hulu, which aren’t under the auspices of the FCC or burdened by the whims of advertisers. But local educators think that one new drama, the plot of which revolves around the mystery behind the suicide of a teenager, has crossed a line.
The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” based on a 2007 book by Jay Asher, explores the suicide of a young woman, who has left behind 13 tapes explaining what each person in her circle did to contribute to her death.
Day schools have shown alarm over the controversial subject matter, with three, Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph, Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange, and the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, having sent letters to parents to address the issues raised in the show.
“Teen suicide is a topic that we are all concerned about — in general — and especially when something as provocative as a show like this comes out,” wrote Adam Shapiro, GOA head of school, in an email to NJJN.
The series has garnered widespread concern for being “inconsistent with safe messaging guidelines around handling portrayals of suicide in media and works of fiction,” according to the JED Foundation, a national nonprofit which provides education and support for teens and young adults in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention.
Specifically, critics say, the show offers graphic details of rape and suicide, without enough focus on prevention. As a result, experts worry that the show may lead to an increased incidence in suicide among adolescents. Additionally, some are of the opinion that it romanticizes suicide and features problematic responses from adults and guidance counselors. They do acknowledge that at a minimum, the show provides a vehicle for discussion.
“There are aspects of the miniseries that go against the recommendations of mental health professionals and suicide prevention models,” Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of the Kushner schools, wrote to parents in his letter. “Many mental health experts argue that watching this series can be harmful to healthy development.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and although men are four times as likely to take their own lives, women are more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Ninety percent of adolescents who die by suicide, like adults, have an underlying mental health issue.
Additionally, in New Jersey, the suicide rate remains lower than the national average. That said, local experts say that anecdotally, there appears to be an increased number of suicides in the local Jewish community over the last year or two. Statistics are not yet available.
In their respective letters, Rubin and GOA upper school principal Christine Stodolski both wrote that for households with teenagers who watch “13 Reasons Why,” parents should watch with them, and then talk about it afterward.
“We implore you to push aside any reticence you may have about this sensitive and frightening topic, broach the subject with your teen and discuss your child’s concerns and reactions with love, compassion and understanding,” wrote Rubin.
In her letter Stodolski wrote, “Conversations on these sensitive topics can be difficult, so it is our hope that with informed guidance from parents and trusted adults, students can make healthy decisions regarding their lives and this program.” In addition, she said, GOA professionals are “available to talk to students, and you, about the series and the topics it raises.”
The email sent out to Gottesman parents included information about the May 4 educational forum on the show hosted by Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ (see box below).
On the subject of how parents should respond, some schools, including Kushner, have provided a link to JED with talking points about the show for both parents and teens. In her letter, Stodolski included the following talking points from the National Association of School Psychologists:
1. Ask your child if they have heard or seen the series “13 Reasons Why.” While we don’t recommend that they be encouraged to view the series, do tell them you want to watch it with them or to catch up, and discuss their thoughts.
2. If they exhibit…warning signs…don’t be afraid to ask if they have thought about suicide or if someone is hurting them. Raising the issue of suicide does not increase the risk or plant the idea. On the contrary, it creates the opportunity to offer help.
3. Ask your child if they think any of their friends or classmates exhibit warning signs. Talk with them about how to seek help for their friend or classmate. Guide them on how to respond when they see or hear any of the warning signs.
4. Listen to your children’s comments without judgment. Doing so requires that you fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said. Put your own agenda aside.
5. Get help from a school-employed or community-based mental health professional if you are concerned for your child’s safety or the safety of one of their peers.
“This series raises very serious, heavy issues. Most kids watch TV by themselves. But a show like this, with its heavy adult content, needs to be watched with parents,” said Robyn Krugman, coordinator of adolescent services for Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ and one of the presenters at the Thursday evening forum. She added that even if kids say they don’t want to talk about it, “it is useful for them to know that their parents can handle tough conversations.”
BELOW ARE EXCERPTS from the JED Foundation’s talking points for teens regarding “13 Reasons Why,” (13RW) the Netflix show that centers on a suicide. The JED Foundation is a national nonprofit which provides education and support for teens and young adults in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention.
• There are healthy ways to cope with the topics covered in 13RW and acting on suicidal thoughts is not one of them.
• If you have watched the show and feel like you need support or someone to talk to, reach out. Talk with a friend, family member, a counselor, or therapist.
• Suicide is not a common response to life’s challenges or adversity. The vast majority of people who experience bullying, the death of a friend, or any other adversity described in 13RW do not die by suicide. In fact, most reach out, talk to others, and go on to lead healthy, normal lives.
• Suicide is never a heroic or romantic act. Hannah’s [one of the lead characters in the show] suicide (although fictional) should be viewed as a tragedy.
• Suicide affects everyone and everyone can do something to help if they see or hear warning signs that someone is at risk of suicide.
• Talking openly and honestly about emotional distress and suicide is OK. It will not make someone more suicidal or put the idea of suicide in their mind. If you are concerned about someone, ask them about it.
• Knowing how to acknowledge and respond to someone who shares their thoughts of emotional distress or suicide with you is important. Don’t judge them or their thoughts. Listen. Be caring and kind. Offer to stay with them. Offer to go with them to get help or to contact a crisis line.
• How the guidance counselor in 13RW responds to Hannah’s thoughts of suicide is not appropriate and not typical of most counselors. School counselors are professionals and a trustworthy source for help. If your experience with a school counselor is unhelpful, seek other sources of support such as a crisis line.
• When you die you do not get to make a movie or talk to people any more. Leaving messages from beyond the grave is a dramatization produced in Hollywood and is not possible in real life.
• Memorializing someone who died by suicide is not a recommended practice. Decorating someone’s locker who died by suicide and/or taking selfies in front of such a memorial is not appropriate and does not honor the life of the person who died by suicide.
• Hannah’s tapes blame others for her suicide. Suicide is never the fault of survivors of suicide loss.