Teen suicide series gets local reactions
Sun Journal - 5/7/2017
May 07--LEWISTON -- A national debate taking place over the controversial Netflix series "13 Reasons Why," about a teen's suicide, has been hard to ignore for local school and mental health professionals.
The 13-episode drama is based on a 2007 novel by Jay Asher about a high school student who kills herself and leaves behind 13 audiotapes detailing the events that led to her death, including sexual assault, substance abuse and bullying. Each tape is directed at a specific person.
Since its release March 31, actress and singer Selena Gomez, a co-producer, and the show's creators have said in public statements that the series sparks an important dialogue on the issues.
The show has received acclaim from media critics, but nationwide and in Maine, mental health and suicide prevention experts have raised concerns that the show makes mistakes that could carry grave consequences for teens already dealing with depression.
"The potential impact on the population that is most likely the target audience for this series -- young, vulnerable teens -- is alarming," a statement from the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said last week. "Whatever a person's attitudes are on the series, the issue of suicide in the lives of teens is real and must be discussed."
That statement also says that while the show has generated a "much-needed conversation," there are issues with how it's presented.
In local schools, which likely hold a large number of viewers, reaction from officials has ranged from taking proactive steps to still deciding how or whether to respond.
Some districts in Maine have sent letters home to parents.
In Oxford Hills, School Administrative District 17 Superintendent Rick Colpitts said that after learning that some middle and elementary students were watching the show, and were talking about it at school, the guidance department and administrators "thought it would be in the best interest of students to notify parents of the controversy and to provide resources for students and parents if interested."
The letter drafted by school counselors tells parents the premise of the show, the important issues it brings up, and the issues counselors have regarding some aspects.
"'13 Reasons Why" is prompting people to think and talk about bullying and mental health," the letter states. "It also works hard to push the message that what you do or say may have a profound effect on others, even if you don't know right away. Those are good things. It also has some messages that concern some members of the mental health community."
The concerns listed by counselors in Oxford Hills have been listed by many, including that it contains a graphic suicide scene, a negative portrayal of the school counselor, no real role of the parents, and "suicide as revenge."
Colpitts said Asher's book is read in some English classes around the country to cover some of its anti-bullying themes.
"However, the Netflix show has greatly expanded the audience to younger students and provided access to the difficult issues without the availability of support systems," he said. "The video series is inherently more graphic simply because of its medium."
Like other school districts, staff are required by law to receive training in suicide prevention. The Falmouth school district also sent a letter home last week.
In Lewiston, Superintendent Bill Webster said the department conducts the required training but has not had a direct discussion with students about the show.
"While we certainly have had discussion about suicide, we have not sent anything home," he said in an email. He added that unlike many other districts, he believes "the majority of our students likely do not even have access to Netflix."
Katy Grondin, superintendent in Auburn, said last week that she was aware of the series but had not heard any concerns from faculty or students.
'Keeping a pulse'
Many, including the National Association of School Psychologists, have urged that teens with a history of depression, self-harm or suicidal thoughts simply avoid the show, and recommends that teenagers watch with a parent who can make it clear that suicide is not a solution to problems.
Among the missteps cited by the NASP are that the series does not emphasize that common among most suicide deaths is the presence of treatable mental illnesses, and that the adult characters in the show, including a school counselor, fail to address the student's pleas for help.
Local medical professionals have stated similar concerns.
Dr. Roslyn Gerwin, director of the pediatric psychiatry consultation service at the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital in Portland, said she's already seen an impact from the show.
"I have not watched the show, but have anecdotally heard and personally experienced patients sharing a negative effect on their mood, and sometimes safety, after watching it," she said in an email this week. "With the already documented, and alarming, increase in rates of suicide for ages 10-18, there should be caution with potentially adding to that risk. I understand that the creators wished to provide increased awareness of suicide, which I appreciate, but would want there to also be more emphasis that treatment is available and can be successful."
She said other issues are that it depicts suicide almost as revenge against being wronged and hurt by others, a theme that providers can hear as a motivator for a suicide attempt among young people. The main character also remains present in the show after her death, which gives the impression of witnessing the aftermath, "which, of course is false, in reality," she said.
Another concern is that due to the format of Netflix, which uploads an entire season at once, the show is easily binge-watched.
In Lewiston, Catherine Ryder, executive director of Tri-County Mental Health Services, said Friday that she became aware of the show through committees in the organization that were talking about it as the show gained more notoriety.
Tom Sneed, the Tri-County medical director, recently talked about the show with his son. He said he found out that the series' impactful, and graphic, suicide scene, which depicts the main character slitting her wrists, differs from the book, in which she swallows pills. He called it "videography glorification."
According to an Associated Press story published last week, Netflix is responding to critics of the show by adding more warnings for viewers about graphic content.
Showrunner Brian Yorkey told The Associated Press last week, "Many people are accusing the show of glamorizing suicide and I feel strongly -- and I think everyone who made the show -- feel very strongly that we did the exact opposite. What we did was portray suicide and we portrayed it as very ugly and very damaging."
Sneed said the premise of the show, with the main character almost narrating posthumously, is also troubling.
Ryder said teens often lack the abstract thinking that comes with contemplating the finality of death. She said for teens who may be on the edge, watching a scene like the one depicted the show could "plant a seed."
"We always worry about that," she said.
Melissa Tremblay, agency clinical director, said she hadn't seen anything noticeable among the teens they are working with.
"That doesn't mean there isn't an undercurrent," she said, adding that the spring season is "an interesting time of year," when people become energized. But, she said, if people are struggling, that energy could be directed in negative ways.
Ryder said they've sent out an inquiry to staffers to see what they're hearing about the show.
"We'll certainly keep a pulse on that now that we're aware," she said.
Owing to Maine's uptick in teen suicides, even prior to the show's release, organizations were planning and hosting more events and fundraisers at schools, aiming to break the stigma that can silence teens dealing with depression.
The Maine chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention held its first "Out of the Darkness" campus walk at Leavitt Area High School in Turner last week. The event had about 200 participants and raised $5,000.
The organization has more campus walk events planned for this fall, including one in Portland.
Coming up May 23, NAMI Western Mountains Maine is hosting a suicide prevention workshop at Mountain Valley High School in Rumford.
Similar events are popping up throughout the state. Ryder said there have been forums to provide additional training to school staff and others to be "mental health first responders."
In Lewiston, Heidi Sawyer, who moderates the community Facebook page Lewiston Rocks, which also organizes community events, said she's trying to plan a public event at which residents can discuss the show and the issues it's raising. Personally, she liked the show.
She said she'd like to enlist the help of a local anti-bullying organization, the #NoBull Project, to lead the discussion.
"I think that everyone, regardless of their background or generation, has some form of experience with bullying and/or mental health issues," she said. "Since this is an issue with sometimes tragic results, I think it's important for communities to come together to talk about it in a healthy way."
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