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Nonprofits Raise Concern Over Netflix Series "13 Reasons Why"

By / May 10, 2017 "13 Reasons Why," featuring Dylan Minnette. (Netflix)

The National Association of School Psychologists and the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network are among a variety of organizations warning of potential dangers to young people posed by the popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, centered on a teen who takes her own life.

The hit TV series 13 Reasons Why, which Netflix just renewed for a second season, is getting blowback from mental health, school, and suicide-prevention groups for its graphic depiction of suicide and for promoting what they say is the dangerous notion that ending one’s own life is a way to get revenge.

The show, released in late March and based on a bestselling young-adult novel by Jay Asher, chronicles the story of Hannah, a teenager who kills herself after bouts of sexual assault, bullying, and negligence by adults, including a school counselor.

Katherine Cowan, director of communications at the National Association of School Psychologists, said the organization’s primary concern is for students who may already be experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts. “Those are the kids who are most at risk,” Cowan said.

Less than two weeks after the show was released, NASP published “considerations for educators,” saying, “We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.”

For at-risk kids, experts are concerned that the show could cause “suicide contagion” or “copycat” behavior.

The portrayal of suicide in the mass media has been connected to increased incidents of suicide, especially if these portrayals are not accompanied by notices about available suicide prevention and/or mental health resources that viewers/readers can contact if they themselves are suicidal or severely depressed,” the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network said in a news release. “This contagion effect has been documented as far back as the 18th century and confirmed by extensive research.”

In response to the backlash, Netflix has added warnings about the program’s content at the beginning of certain explicit episodes. It also released a 30-minute documentary on the series, called 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, which mentions suicide-prevention resources for people watching the show who might need help.

“While many of our members find the show to be a valuable driver for starting important conversation with their families, we have also heard concern from those who feel the series should carry additional advisories,” Netflix said in a statement.

NASP and other mental health groups are all for promoting thoughtful conversation on hard topics, such as bullying, assault, and suicide. “It’s really important, and we’re a part of this conversation, and we believe that educators and parents need to be talking to kids about these issues and helping to come up with solutions to these issues,” Cowan said.

NASP’s statement urges school psychologists to reach out to parents, encouraging them to ask their children whether they have watched 13 Reasons Why, and provides “safe messaging” about suicide for students. Educators should engage students directly as well, NASP says.

“Help students articulate their perceptions when viewing controversial content, such as 13 Reasons Why,” NASP says. “The difficult issues portrayed do occur in schools and communities, and it is important for adults to listen, take adolescents’ concerns seriously, and be willing to offer to help.”

Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. More »

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