A new Netflix series about teen suicide is rife with inaccuracies and misleading messages, said Shannon Robinson, KSBA’s training and conference coordinator.
The show, 13 Reasons Why, has been in the news since it premiered in the spring. Robinson and many educators and other professionals say it romanticizes suicide and validates it as form of revenge.
Larry Dodson (right), an Oldham County school board member and a member
of KSBA’s board of directors, interacts with Shannon Robinson (left), KSBA’s
training and conference coordinator during a Summer Leadership Institute
clinic session on the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.
Getting the right messages out about teen suicide is important, but 13 Reasons is an unreliable vehicle, said Robinson, who presented a clinic on the subject – called “13 Reasons To Be Cautious” – at KSBA’s Summer Leadership Institute. “I don’t recommend (the series) in the schools because it is so irresponsible,” she said. “The benefits of increased attention to youth suicide don’t mean it is always worth the risk. We do want to get information in front of them, we do want to have conversations with kids, but we do want to do it responsibly.”
A number of organizations agree, among them the JED Foundation, a teen suicide prevention group. JED refused producers’ requests to support the show and subsequently issued 13 Reasons Why talking points to guide discussions of the show’s inaccuracies and encourage teens to take positive action when they or someone they know become suicidal. (www.jedfoundation.org).
In 13 episodes, 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, a teen suicide victim who leaves behind recorded messages that detail how she was hurt by those around her. The series’ second season is in production now.
Like the young adult book it is based upon, the show is more popular with teens than with adults. Only one school board member in Robinson’s session had watched the show.
Robinson acknowledged that the series is gripping but said that it also sensationalizes suicide, a danger for teens who might have difficulty distinguishing between television’s fictional accounts and reality.
The show also relays numerous inaccuracies about suicide, among them: suicide cannot be prevented, actions of friends and family lead to suicide, and suicide is the easy way out. “The most dangerous message I see (in the series) is ‘If I cannot be heard in life, I can be heard in death,’” Robinson said.
The series portrays Hannah as a heroine and the adults in her life, including her parents, teachers and a school counselor, as oblivious to her problems. “All of the adults in Hannah’s life are seen as uninvolved or incompetent,” Robinson said. Her teacher and counselor fail to act on telltale signs that Hannah is suicidal. In a real school setting, where professionals have been trained to look for those red flags, Robinson asked, “What teacher would do that?”
The show also fails to make the critical point “that most children who die by suicide have a mental disorder,” Robinson said. “The show doesn’t mention any mental disorder at all.”
The show does have a few positive messages, although Robinson admitted her list was “pretty small.” It makes the point that students need to care for and watch out for one another. The series could help adults identify triggers for suicide and it also shows that suicide has many causes. “It could be a tool for parents or grandparents to watch to see how kids operate,” she said.
Larry Dodson, an Oldham County school board member who has watched the series, agrees. “I think the show should be offered as professional development for teachers. I would recommend it for every adult, school teacher and administrator,” said Dodson, who also sits on KSBA’s board of directors.
While Robinson doesn’t believe the series should be shown in schools, she realizes some children will watch it at home. She recommends that parents watch it with their children as she did with her teenage daughter: “Watch it with them and discuss it as you go along – what is done right, what is done wrong, and explain it to kids.”