Marin educators fear 'contagion' effect of '13 Reasons Why'
Marin Independent Journal - 5/8/2017
May 08--Help LINES
Marin's 24/7 suicide prevention and crisis hotline is 415-499-1100. In-person or telephone grief counseling is available at 415-499-1195.
After the popular Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" received national criticism that it glorifies teen suicide, school districts across Marin sent parents cautionary letters about the graphic content of the show in which a 17-year-old girl takes her own life.
Some school counselors said that because the series, based on a 2007 young adult novel of the same name, was filmed in Marin and around the Bay Area, students might recognize local sites and feel "personal identification" with the story.
"The most important thing is that our students know that they always have a safe adult to go to," said Mary Jane Burke, county superintendent of schools. "It's critical that the communication with our students and our families provides for positive actions and that students can have resources in the event that they are distressed or any of their friends are distressed."
The concern is that the hit 13-episode series, co-produced by actor and singer Selena Gomez, includes scenes of substance abuse, bullying, sexual harassment, rape and a hard-to-watch bathtub suicide of the heroine Hannah. She leaves behind 13 audiotapes detailing the events that led to her death.
On Sunday, Netflix announced that it renewed the show for a second season.
Educators and mental health professionals said the suicide in the show is oversimplified, and it's harmful because there is no discussion of mental illness. The "over-identification with the main character ... may lead to contagion or copycat behavior," according to several letters from Marin schools.
Educators took issue with the fact that adults depicted in the show, including parents and student counselors, were not helpful to the teen characters.
The National Association of School Psychologists released guidance to parents on how to lead discussions along with other resources, which Marin educators are sharing with their communities.
In a letter from the Tamalpais Union High School District, Wesley Cedros, senior director of student services, said that there has been an uptick in students seeking help from the district's school counselors, educators and staff after watching the series.
"The fact that students were seeking help and knew where to find it is terrific. It is at least some indication that we're offering accessible services and chipping away at the stigma surrounding mental health, but we can also be reasonably sure that we were only seeing a percentage of those who may have been affected," Cedros wrote in an email to the Independent Journal when asked to comment.
The message that educators want to get across to parents, he said, is that "it's out there and may be triggering for some kids to view" and that "open communication between young people and the caring adults in their lives, especially about major, systemic issues like bullying, rape and substance abuse, is key to helping prevent terrible outcomes like suicide."
Administrators of the private K-12 San Domenico School in San Anselmo issued a letter to parents for the same reasons.
Children now have increasing access to media through cellphones, tablets, computers and television and it's important that educators and parents understand its impact, said Cecily Stock, head of school at San Domenico.
"This is one of the most concerning programs we've seen in the past year," she said. "We are not going to tell parents what to watch or what not to watch, but if your children are watching this show, please watch it with them. Please know that they are watching it and please have a conversation with them about it."
Alyson Sinclair, a mother of two Mill Valley middle-schoolers, was among the parents who received a cautionary letter from the school Wednesday.
Sinclair said her 12-year-old daughter had already seen the show over spring break, and now she's watching it with her to offer support and guidance.
"Some of it is disturbing, even for me as an adult to watch," Sinclair said. But "she realizes, based on our conversations, that the way the main character felt and was able to put together these tapes to tell her story and justify her suicide is not very realistic."
She praised the school for getting the word out but thought it would have been a better service if parents had been alerted several weeks ago.
The Larkspur-Corte Madera and Kentfield school districts have also sent letters to parents with warnings and crisis center resources.
The San Rafael City and Novato Unified school districts are preparing letters to send this week.
Sending these letters is the responsible thing to do, said LeeAnn Bartolini, a Mill Valley psychologist and Dominican University professor of psychology who works with teens and adults and specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders.
"Adults need to be hypersensitive to the younger generation's attempts to reach out," she said.
She said that teenagers often do hide things from parents and teachers, and "We as the adults need to read between the lines and we need to ask questions, because students don't come out and say 'I'm having suicidal thoughts,' they give hints that they are feeling lonely, they are having a tough time."
The show is rated TV-MA, which means it might be unsuitable for children under 17, and three episodes that contain explicit material have "viewer discretion advised" warnings.
While suicide has been depicted on TV shows, the youth of the roles in "13 Reasons Why" is pioneering. It has clearly struck a nerve: The show has 340,000 Twitter followers and 2.4 million likes on Facebook.
Gomez, who has talked openly about her own mental-health struggles, said she was braced for a backlash: "It's going to come no matter what. It's not an easy subject to talk about. But I'm very fortunate with how it's doing."
Suicide was the second-leading cause of death for children and young adults ages 10 to 24 in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The suicide rate for Marin residents, whether they died in the county or elsewhere, is about 12.4 per 100,000, according to Dr. Matthew Willis, the county public health officer, compared with a 10.7 suicide rate for the state and a 13.4 rate nationwide.
Forty Marin residents committed suicide in 2013, including one teen and eight people between the ages of 20 and 34. Four teen suicides occurred in 2010, the most the county has seen for people 19 and younger, Willis said.
"The good thing is that there doesn't appear to be a trend in Marin," Willis said. "But we have to make sure people know it's important to reach out ... that young persons have a trusted adult in their life that can really move them into a good place, and treatment does help."
The guidelines for parents and educators recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists are online at bit.ly/2q2m6U9.
The Associated Press and the Washington Post contributed to this report.
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