By Mary Morrell | Correspondent
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth in the United States.
Yet, despite its disturbing frequency, an act of suicide, especially among youth, is still met with a gap in understanding, raising the painful question, “Why?”
Perhaps that is part of the reason the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” has become what some refer to as a viral phenomenon among youth.
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The series is based on a New York Times best-selling novel of the same name written by Jay Asher. The book tells the story of Hannah, a high school sophomore who commits suicide and reveals her reasons through 13 audio tapes she makes and has delivered to the 13 people whom she feels were in some way responsible for her suicide.
The book has sold more than three million copies.
The Netflix series has also earned No. 1 status. According to Twitter data reported by “Variety” magazine online, “13 Reasons Why” is the most tweeted show for 2017 so far, with more than 11 million tweets since its launch on March 30.
Another online publication, ”Wired,” notes that “13 Reasons Why” had garnered more than 2 million news mentions in the six weeks since it launched.
Despite its wild popularity, not all the feedback has been positive. The show, has in fact, engendered a good deal of negative commentary and clear concern among mental health professionals, educators and youth leaders.
Psychologists, counselors, parents and teachers are among those expressing serious concerns about the potential damage the show’s intense messages present to young people, many of whom are binge watching the show without parental guidance, and therefore with limited opportunities to discuss the show’s powerful content. Included in the series are graphic depictions of suicide and rape.
Referencing a report by the National Association of School Psychologists, and after having watching the series, William Vanore, director of guidance in Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, shared his concerns, including the emotional well-being of and potential risks to young viewers.
“Especially at risk are those with mental health issues, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, those who are isolated, struggling or vulnerable. While the series does address the topics of suicide, bullying, shaming, and loneliness … I do not believe a positive message is coming through clearly enough,” Vanore said. “Immature and impressionable viewers may romanticize the behaviors and choices of the characters, think that is normal and acceptable behavior, and not pick up on the lessons that are/were to be learned.”
Messages of Faith
Margaret Boland, diocesan associate superintendent of schools, expressed similar concerns. “This is a difficult show that has a great deal of appeal for students who feel they are not accepted or feel they have nowhere to turn.”
For this reason, she added, “The faith component is critical to instill in our students. The most important thing we teach our students in our Catholic schools is that their Catholic faith is the constant in their life. No one can ever take their faith away from them. Their faith is a true gift from God, and every time we embrace the concepts of our faith in our lives, the grace is there to support and care for us, and for them.
“We teach our students that God created them because he truly loves them and they are so loved by God even when life is difficult for them,” she continued. “I have always told my students that if they are in a place where they have to make a difficult choice, just ask God for help and it will be given to them.
“Making unpopular choices as teens is very, very hard. God only asks them to be faithful to God, to understand that they are very precious. We want them to know that we are praying for them and that they can say ‘no’ to a poor choice and ‘yes’ to loving themselves as God has asked them to do.”
Another disturbing message of the series for youth, said Melissa Dayton, service coordinator and religion teacher in Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, is that “they must handle hard things alone; that adults aren’t worth going to for help.”
For Colleen M. Hayes, director of guidance in Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, a viewing of the series left her with the impression that “none of the students were part of a faith-based community that they could turn to … none of the teenagers had a trusted adult to go to. The parents were disconnected, the faculty non-caring and the guidance counselor useless.”
Vanore agreed. “I felt that the adults, especially school personnel, for the most part, are made to look clueless and less than professional and competent,” he said. “The strength of our faith community affords students the comfort and opportunity to seek out adults who they can go to for help.”
A problem that is often being addressed in schools, said Dayton, “is that while developmentally, it is normal for teens to turn to peers, when someone is in crisis, they need an adult. We spend hours on the phone speaking with adults about the importance of improving communication and trust with teens so that they will be the ones teens turn to when needed.”
In the aftermath of a large suicide cluster in their community, Dayton and her husband founded “You Cannot Be Replaced” in 2012 as an organization that works in suicide prevention. The couple speaks in high schools and serves on coalitions and advocacy committees in New Jersey, empowering young people and families to improve relationships, communication and trust.
“Teens need us to remind them that even if it’s not them struggling, but a friend who is, they are not equipped to handle mental health issues without adult guidance,” Dayton said. “But, what they are equipped to do, and they need to know is also their responsibility to do, is to be a support and bring that friend to an adult. They cannot resolve these issues without adults and trained counselors,” she added, reporting that students who have seen the series have shared with her that it was upsetting, and said things like, “Why did I watch it?” “I can’t unsee it,” and “It has messed me up.”
Presence and Support
Dan Waddington, diocesan associate director for youth ministry, noted, “One of the challenges with a show like this is that so much of the focus is on the negative that exists in the world of teens and doesn’t offer equal time to the positive, or to the opportunities that exist for love and support when you are hurting.
“Our Church and youth ministries can be one of the most positive sources of strength and, as leaders of young people, the show reminds us how important our role is to be an instrument and witness to God’s love for them,” he said.
Jeanne Marinello, youth group coordinator in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral Parish, Freehold, explained that it was a suicide that led her to become involved in youth ministry. She shared that when she was 15, her brother’s friend, who was 12 at the time, committed suicide. Marinello chose to channel her bitterness and anger into something positive, to “walk a path toward being a supporting, attentive presence for someone else.”
Marinello believes that as parents, educators and Christians, “Our voices need to be louder.”
“We don’t want to tackle this topic out of fear and make it a taboo subject, one they’re afraid to broach. But this series shows only one side. It’s just about the bad,” she said. “[Youth] need to know no situation is hopeless; they need reassurance. We need to give them enough tools to combat the negative messages and images they are receiving. When a kid feels they don’t have an answer, that’s trouble. They don’t have a life vest.”
Faith, said Marinello, can be that safety net.
As such, Marinello will focus the parish’s June youth ministry meeting on “13 Reasons Why Not” and plans to brainstorm with youth, who range from eighth grade to high school seniors, to come up with 13 reasons why they shouldn’t view suicide as an option in painful situations. “We don’t give kids enough credit to come to their own solutions, with our guidance. We need to give them the right tools,” she said.
Marinello also pointed out that some public grammar schools are sending out letters of warning to parents of middle-schoolers because it is becoming more difficult to monitor their TV viewing, especially if they have older siblings. Some Catholic schools in the Diocese have sent out similar letters of concern to the parents of high schoolers.
The Real Reasons
An additional and important issue with the series, said Vanore, is that it does not address the fact that treatable mental illness is the common cause of suicide.
“It fails to identify mental health issues or the resources available to help students. Suicide is most typically a combined result of treatable mental illness and overwhelming or intolerable stressors,” Vanore said.
Alicia Bruno, youth ministry coordinator in St. Mary Parish, Barnegat, said there should have been more warnings included in the Netflix series.
“Before the [first] episode began, there were warnings for graphic scenes but no mention of who to contact if anyone is contemplating suicide or struggling with depression,” she said. “There should have been a warning prior to each episode. Many teens and young adults who may watch this, more than likely, will not watch the follow-up episode at the very end where it talks about why they produced the series.”
The 30-minute documentary following the show, “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons,” directs viewers to www.13reasonswhy.info as a resource for those who may need help. The series, which is rated TV-MA for mature audiences, includes warnings before two episodes depicting rape and suicide.
Netflix recently reported that it will update and strengthen its trigger warnings for the series due to the influx of concern expressed about the need for additional advisories.