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Why this hit Netflix show has Sacramento schools worried about suicide

Sacramento Bee - 5/5/2017

May 05--The phrase "suicide tapes" has been slithering through school hallways in whispers and giggles around Sacramento, and counselors and principals are worried. Some fear the new slang -- a reference to the hit Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" -- could inspire possibly deadly behavior among suggestible children who watch the show.

The high school drama, released this March, begins with a cryptic voice-over from teenager Hannah Baker while she records her own audio suicide note. Her cassette tapes detail the bullying, sexual assault and loneliness she experienced at school -- a narrative that experts say tackles important topics, but in a glamorized and sometimes inaccurate way.

The main concern is that Hannah's manifesto will resonate with struggling students and prompt them to copy her final act, which the series finale depicts in detail. Psychologists call it the Werther effect, named after a character in a 1774 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe novel that caused a contagion of suicides in Europe at the time.

"What we know is that talking about suicide does not cause suicide," said Stan Collins, a suicide prevention specialist with the California mental health group Each Mind Matters. "But when people are having thoughts of suicide, and they're exposed to portrayals of suicide -- especially glamorized and romanticized portrayals of suicide -- it can potentially increase risk of an attempt."

In a behind-the-scenes Netflix segment with the show's creative team, executive producer Brian Yorkey defended the decision to show Hannah's death on screen.

"We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch, because we wanted to be very clear that there is nothing in any way worthwhile about suicide," he said.

If handled sensitively, parents can use the show as a starting point for important conversations about teen mental health, Collins said. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people age 15 to 19 in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"There are more people talking about suicide than possibly have ever talked about suicide before," Collins said. "There are these conversations that are happening, and what we need to do is empower people to have these conversations in a safe way."

The Davis Joint Unified School District published a letter about the show on its website in April, informing parents that the series "is not completely accurate" and "could suggest to some that suicide is an appropriate avenue to address problems."

Natalie Zehnder, the crisis manager for the district, recommends that parents watch the show with their teens or at least talk about it afterward to help put the dramatic events into context. Asking questions such as "Has this happened to you or any of your friends?" can open up a conversation about hard topics such as bullying, substance abuse and relationship troubles, she said.

"Their frontal lobes, the judgment center that allows you to plan ahead, is not fully developed for adolescents," Zehnder said. "Everything is heightened. Everything is so intense in ways that it isn't for adults, emotionally. ... In general, the concern is that kids don't necessarily have the judgment to see this as fiction."

Last Wednesday, the Folsom Cordova Unified School District sent an email to parents encouraging them to talk to their children about the show. The district lost a seventh-grader to suicide in 2014 and launched an ambitious anti-bullying campaign shortly afterward. A licensed therapist now works in each secondary school and about half of the elementary schools, and staff have undergone new training to recognize at-risk students, said Scott Meyer, child welfare coordinator for the district.

All California schools will need to take similar measures next school year to comply with AB 2246. The new law requires schools grades seven to 12 have suicide prevention, intervention and follow-up plans in place.

In "13 Reasons Why," Hannah visits a school counselor just hours before her death to discuss her feelings of isolation and depression, but the counselor is distracted and doesn't pick up on her dire situation.

That scene is particularly damaging, Meyer said, because it could make students think that seeking help is pointless. He said he hopes parents will be inspired by the show to point struggling students toward counseling.

Related stories from The Sacramento Bee

'13 Reasons' sparks criticism of teen suicide depiction

Netflix responds to '13 Reasons' critics with more warnings

Suicide, cyberbullying, and more conversations to have with teens about '13 Reasons Why'

"We have this product that is creating dialogue and discussions. My concern is, who are they having discussions with?" Meyer said. "The students could be watching it on their phone, they could be watching it anywhere. And I want to make sure there are resources for them, people to talk to."

Amanda Lipp, a 25-year-old Sacramento resident and mental health advocate who has struggled with suicidal thoughts, said she appreciated the show's straightforward approach to the topic, even though certain scenes were difficult to watch.

While the actual suicide portrayal may have crossed a line, Lipp said the overall message of the show is positive and will make viewers rethink how they treat one another and encourage people to seek help.

"I found myself making more phone calls, reaching out to people, being more patient," she said. "These are things we should be talking about, so we can have better access and less stigma."

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

This image released by Netflix shows Katherine Langford in a scene from the series, "13 Reasons Why," about a teenager who commits suicide.

This image released by Netflix shows Katherine Langford in a scene from the series, "13 Reasons Why," about a teenager who commits suicide. Beth Dubber AP

Dylan Minnette in "13 Reasons Why."

Dylan Minnette in "13 Reasons Why." Netflix TNS

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