Schools Issue Advisories Against ‘13 Reasons Why’

A trending Netflix series sparks debate

Last fall, Shelly Rheinbeck’s 12-year-old daughter cut herself on multiple occasions and contemplated committing suicide. She had to be admitted to a ‘mental health’ hospital twice and then in an outpatient program for five weeks. Now Rheinbeck’s daughter is in a therapeutic school in upstate New York.

This week, Rheinbeck urged her children’s school in Westchester to issue a cautionary warning about the trending Netflix series, ‘13 Reasons Why’, because of its vivid portrayal of teenage bullying, rape, slut shaming, drunk driving and suicide.

“Teen suicide is real,” said Rheinbeck, “It’s so important not to glamorize it.” Good set up, concise, to the point, nice!

In the Netflix series based on Jay Asher’s book, ‘13 Reasons Why,’ 17-year-old Hannah Bake takes her own life and leaves behind audio recordings for 13 people. The audio tapes recount painful events in which one or more of these 13 individuals played a role in her life, and became part of the why she killed herself.

Concern about the graphic portrayal of events in the series has prompted many schools in Manhattan and the tristate area to send warning letters to parents, urging them to exercise caution when their children watch ‘13 Reasons Why.’ Among them are the Stephen Gaynor School in Manhattan, the Scarsdale public schools in Westchester and the Montclair public schools in New Jersey.

“While the show is fictional, the series is extremely graphic, including several rape scenes, and raises significant concerns about the emotional safety of those watching it,” read the letter Andrew D. Evangelista, the mental health coordinator for Montclair Public Schools in New Jersey, sent to school parents.

An email to parents at the Scarsdale Public Schools by Eric Rauschenbach, the director of special education and student services read, “Without parental guidance, this series can at best be misinterpreted and at worst portray suicide as a viable option for students who are at risk.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in five adolescents has a diagnosable mental health disorder, and nearly one third show symptoms of depression. Symptoms of depression include withdrawal from friends and family, poor school performance, poor self esteem, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

The National Association of School Psychologists is also concerned about the impact of ‘13 Reasons Why’ on this vulnerable group. In a newsletter, the association mentioned that children who have suicidal tendencies will romanticize the choices made by the characters in the series. They may identify with the experiences portrayed and this might lead them to develop revenge fantasies.

Parents are divided on the cautionary warning. Priya Taori, a mother of two teenagers was furious that Netflix commissioned this series. “ I’m upset just thinking about how so many impressionable teens would watch this.” said Taori. Others thought it was gratuitous and offered no solutions.

Some parents, however, thought the series was timely, relevant and maybe even valuable. Fernanda Amaral Couto, a middle school counselor and a parent, found the series intense, and its graphic scenes inappropriate for some audiences and dangerous to kids at risk. However, she also saw this as an opportunity to open a dialogue with children. “ Guess what?? Teenagers really want to be talking about those issues.” said Couto. “ The fact that the show is opening that channel is great.”

Gina Pomponio, another parent, felt that the series provides an important lesson. It showcases, for example, what happens when teenagers witness assaults and bullying, and don’t take action to address the situation “No matter how ‘good’ or how well mannered and caring we feel that our kids are,” said Pomponio. “ This series shows that every action has its consequences.”

Andrea Greenburg has three children, and she watched the series and couldn’t understand the anger against it. “Sweeping it under the rug because it is uncomfortable does not make these problems go away.” said Greenburg. “While emotional and pretty depressing, I think the show can be a positive thing.”

Many teens watching the show had already read the book by Jay Asher. Nineteen-year old Alexis Schachter binge watched the show in two days with her friends. She knew of the terminal ending but was fascinated with the way the series played out. When she saw people on Facebook and Twitter complaining about the show she thought it was a good thing. “Good or bad publicity about suicides begins the conversation,” said Schachter. “It shows people care.”

Anisha Mukherjee, a college freshman, liked the book and the series, but felt concerned that the series could trigger unwanted emotions for people who were struggling with similar issues. An acquaintance who had been raped could not watch it because it was too much for her to process, said Mukherjee. “Besides, the series never talks about mental health.” said Mukherjee. “That is the biggest trigger for suicides.”

Her concern is shared by the National Association of School Psychologists. “Suicide is not the simple consequence of stressors or coping challenges, but rather, it is most typically a combined result of treatable mental illnesses and overwhelming or intolerable stressors.” read its newsletter.

For Lea Seren, a life coach specializing in mental illnesses and eating disorders/depression processes, ‘13 Reasons Why’ can serve as a wake up call. “We shouldn’t see it as ‘that would never happen to me/us’, said Seren. “ If we can monitor closely the interpretations our kids could have and engage with them, the show would have served a purpose.”

Netflix did not respond to an email for comment on the reactions to the show.

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