AN OPEN LETTER TO FAMILIES
May 4, 2017
An open letter to families about youth suicide and 13 Reasons Why,
Within days of its release, the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why rose to the top of the list of most-watched (and most-tweeted-about) Netflix series. If you are a teenager, you’re aware of the film’s extraordinary popularity among your friends and classmates. If you are a parent, you need to be aware, too.
As one of the area’s leading suicide awareness and prevention organizations, the Jesse Klump Memorial Fund is pleased that the tragedy of youth suicide is on every young person’s tongue, but disappointed about the portrayal of the suicide victim and the graphic nature of many scenes. Above all, we regret the failure of Netflix to recognize that the issues and their portrayal can be a trigger to a young person in a suicidal crisis by failing to provide crisis prevention information in every episode.
For those reasons, we join other experts in suicide prevention to advise that families watch the series together. If that is not possible, we urge adults to openly discuss the issues with the teens in their lives.
Reviews of 13 Reasons Why run the gamut from “It is powerful” from a high school teacher to “the show may be perceived as glorifying and romanticizing suicide,” from a mental health professional. On Facebook pages, and in our conversations with parents and young people, those diverse opinions are reflected. While we agree that it is vital that the community address issues like bullying, sexual assault, drinking and drug use, gender identification and preference, and the destructive potential of social media, we are wary of a scenario in which many mental health practitioners are issuing stark warnings.
Critics have pointed to the graphic and vicious depiction of rape as being gratuitous, and to the suicide scene, which many think is little more than a tutorial on one way in which a young person may make an attempt on his or her own life. The young woman whose fictional suicide is the conceit of the plot is depicted as “not a victim so much as a manipulator, enacting her own revenge on the characters,” behavior that is atypical of suicidal young people. The series is nearly devoid of practical prevention information. It does not even feature the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 1-800-273-TALK, which we believe at a very minimum, should appear before and after every episode.
At its best, 13 Reasons Why opens adult eyes to the problems modern young people face, and provides a forum for discussions between adults and youth to find solutions that make kids’ lives safer, less stressful and more secure. As a catalyst to conversation it serves a useful purpose, but at its worst, 13 Reasons Why can be disturbing and harmful, and when presented to a young person already contemplating suicide, with no mature guidance, it could have tragic consequences.