Schools warned about Netflix show '13 Reasons Why'
A popular Netflix series that centers on a teen girl’s suicide has prompted several Ontario school boards warn to parents about its overall message.
Based on a young adult novel written by Jay Asher, ‘13 Reasons Why’ tells the story of high school student Hannah Baker and the series of events that led up to her suicide.
Hannah, played by actress Katherine Langford, leaves a box of audio tapes for a group of her classmates to listen to after her death. Through each tape, Hannah reveals the reasons that contributed to her decision to take her own life.
Since its release last month, the show has come under fire for its portrayal of suicide.
Kate Walsh, who plays Hannah’s mother grieving mother Olivia, recently defended the show to The Huffington Post. In the interview, Walsh suggested that the show should be mandatory content in schools so that students and teachers can have conversations about mental health.
But the Ministry of Education – and a handful of Ontario school boards -- don’t feel the same way.
In a letter sent to schools across the province, the Ministry of Education says ’13 Reasons Why’ should not be considered a teaching tool as it’s “ potentially triggering for vulnerable young people.”
The Ministry includes a variety of talking points educators can refer to if they’re approached by students about the show.
One of the first districts to jump on board with the ministry’s suggestion was Hamilton Wentworld District School Board.
In a memo published on their website, the board warned parents that the show “may harm students who struggle with mental health challenges.”
“It has graphic content related to suicide, glamorization of suicidal behaviour and negative portrayals of helping professionals, which may prevent youth from seeking help,” the letter reads.
“We have recommended that our teachers not use this as a teaching aid. In any class, some students could watch the series and potentially benefit. Others may have a negative reaction, whether they then blame the victim or others during the class discussions or identify with the victim and the attention their death received.”
The board says it’s concerned about students watching the show outside of school and recommend parents watch it with their children, “in case they have concerns or questions.”
The letter goes on to include a prepared list of tips parents can refer to when talking about the show with their child.
Durham District School Board also rejected the show as content suitable for classrooms.
“Use of the Netflix series, ‘13 Reasons Why’, as a teaching tool is not recommended. The material is graphic and potentially triggering for vulnerable young people,” DDSB said in a statement issued to CTV News Toronto.
“However, some of our students may access this material on their own and may be left with questions and concerns. That is why our clinical staff has provided a number of suggestions for school staff to best manage those situations including encouraging critical thinking, healthy coping, help seeking and caring support.”
The Peel District School Board expressed similar sentiments, calling the show a “glorification of suicide and suicide contagion.”
“For these reasons, mental health professionals across North America, including the Peel District School Board’s mental health team, feel it is necessary to make sure our families are aware of this series and its troubling content,” the board wrote in a statement sent to CTV News Toronto.
“Resources have been shared with our educators, and a letter will be distributed to families and posted to school websites tomorrow.”
Dr. Marshall Korenblum, the chief psychiatrist at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for Children and Families in Toronto, says that the show has the ability to be dangerous to youth because it lacks “a message of hope.”
“Ninety per cent of people who kill themselves have a preexisting mental illness, often undiagnosed and untreated. When you watch the last episode and you see Hannah just before she kills herself, it’s clear to me that she is suffering from clinical depression. But that word is never used,” he said.
In one episode, Hannah approaches her school guidance counsellor and loosely explains how she’s been feeling but never elaborates on what exactly is bothering her.
Korenblum said that portraying school staff and parents as “inept or stupid” may deter them from seeking help.
“Now, admittedly a lot of teenagers view adults that way so one could argue that it’s realistic but the counsellor session she has with the school guidance counsellor is an example of everything someone shouldn’t do,” he said. “So the danger is that may turn kids off from seeking help because if they think, ‘Well, if that’s the kind of help I’m going to get, I’m not going for that.’ So kids will get untreated, undiagnosed and they may kill themselves.”
Korenblum acknowledges that the show has “courage” for depicting heavy topics like bullying, rape culture and suicide but that it ultimately sends the wrong message.
However, due to its popularity among young people, Korenblum says there’s no use for parents to avoid it. Instead, he suggests parents and kids watch it together.
“The cat is out of the bag. It’s out there so kids are going to watch it,” he said.
“There’s no harm in talking about suicide but it’s got to be balanced, reasonable and include a message of hope and optimism, which is that most mental illness can be treated and suicide does not have to be the response to bullying.”
Help is available:
Kids Help Phone is a free, 24 hour phone and web counselling service that’s anonymous and confidential 1-800-668-6868.