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‘13 Reasons Why’ on Netflix looks at teen suicide, sparks discussion

Dylan Minnette stars in "Netflix's "13 Reasons Why."

Dylan Minnette stars in "Netflix's "13 Reasons Why." Credit: Netflix / Beth Dubber

Parents: If you hear your middle and high school kids talking about a new Netflix series called “13 Reasons Why,” you might want to jump into the conversation.

The series is based on a 2007 young-adult novel of the same name by Jay Asher, and it seems like everyone in the target demographic — and beyond — has been binge-watching it since it came out on March 31. “The kids are going crazy about it,” says Iris Kline, a social worker at Wantagh High School. “They love it. I think part of it is it’s about teenagers. And the whole idea of someone speaking to you from the beyond, I think it’s very intriguing for the kids.”

“13 Reasons” is the story of a high school junior who commits suicide and leaves behind cassette tapes that outline each person who contributed to her wanting to end her life. In addition to graphic images of the suicide, the show also includes graphic depictions of rape and violence.

“A lot of kids have read this book already,” Kline says. “I think the difference here is now you get it as a visual. There’s nothing left to the imagination; now it’s in color.” The series is rated TV-MA — “may be unsuitable for children under 17.”

Kline says parents should consider watching the series themselves, and ask the kids to tell them what they think of particular episodes. A lot of the things the characters go through — bullying, feeling isolated — many tweens and teens experience as well, she says.

A concern of suicide prevention experts is that the show might glamorize suicide and cause a child who already is thinking about it to copycat. “The concern is that for somebody who is in pain and vulnerable and isolated, you aren’t sure how people are going to interpret the message,” says Meryl Cassidy, executive director of Response of Suffolk County, which runs a suicide prevention hotline at 631-751-7500.

James W. Polansky, the Superintendent of Schools for the Huntington School District, emailed a letter to parents alerting them to the programming. “While I make no judgement about the intent of the series’ producers, we know that social media and sophisticated marketing of products can sometimes unintentionally convey messages that confuse teenagers who may, themselves, be struggling in one or more regards,” Polansky wrote, including in his letter a roundup of resources for parents. Other school districts across Long Island have followed suit.

Kline says parents should ask outright, “Have you ever thought about suicide?” “This is really dealing with ending your life, being in so much pain,” she says of the show.

The Manhattan-based Jed Foundation, which works to prevent teen suicide, has prepared a tipsheet of talking points for “13 Reasons Why” to open up a dialogue between parents and kids based on how the story unfolds. “There’s a ton of concerning content in there,” says Dr. Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer at the Jed Foundation. “We wanted to do what we could to turn people’s attention to more positive ways of using a show we expected young people are going to watch.” See the Jed Foundation talking points here

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