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Netflix series alarms schools, mental health workers

Katherine Langford (left) and Alisha Boe star in the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why." (Beth Dubber/Netflix)

When Hermantown school district staff began hearing students discuss the plot of Netflix's popular new series "13 Reasons Why," many became concerned and watched it themselves.

"It's pretty graphic," said Jenny Wiese, principal of the middle school.

The show is based on a book and tells the story of 17-year-old Hannah Baker, who takes her own life. She reveals why through a series of tapes intended for people she says played a role in her decision to kill herself.

Hermantown sent a letter home to families in grades 5-12 addressing the contents of the show in hopes of promoting discussion with kids who are watching it, joining schools across the country in similar efforts.

"At this age, there is a lot of self-struggle," Wiese said. "We wanted to share resources with parents."

The show has alarmed mental health professionals for its intense portrayal of sexual assault and Hannah's suicide.

While Netflix intended the series to act as a cautionary tale, research shows that the way suicide is presented by news and entertainment media, especially if it's graphic, can trigger copycat behavior, said Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the JED Foundation, a national suicide prevention nonprofit.

Even if the percentage of that occurrence is low, "when millions of people are seeing it, that low percentage may still translate into several people who harm themselves," Schwartz said.

Duluth parent Kelly Mullan is watching the series with her 12-year-old daughter, who showed interest in it after hearing other kids talk about it. Mullan said kids will find a way to watch it, so it's better as a parent to take part, ask questions and discuss what's depicted.

"Some of the stuff in the show is really negative, and not just the sexual assault and the suicide," Mullan said. "There is the idea she is getting revenge or blaming these people for the reason she committed suicide. I think that for teenagers being left alone with that message could be really dangerous."

The show's Hannah begins her first tape with "Settle in, because I'm about to tell you the story of my life, more specifically why my life ended. And if you're listening to this tape, you're one of the reasons why."

Duluth resident Alicia Cosgriff said she and her 18-year-old daughter have both watched it, and have had good discussions about the show.

"I think everybody that sees it is going to glean something different, depending on who they are," she said, noting her kind-hearted daughter told her she never realized how much the little things you say or don't say can affect someone.

"It showed how little circumstances pile up, and how all of them could have been dealt with," she said, "and how the solution is so permanent, and it's just not the answer."

Erin Walsh of Mind Positive Parenting is an expert on media's impact to the health and development of children. Media shapes how we look at things, she said, and the show brings up many "powerful messages," some that lead to conversations about the importance of kindness and the role of a bystander. But there isn't much focus on mental health, she said, and there is the dramatized "Hollywood" treatment of showing Hannah exert power after death.

Resilient and healthy teens could probably watch and have "great conversations" about the show, she said, but a kid who "identifies with Hannah or is feeling really isolated or lonely and is watching all 13 episodes and isn't talking to anyone about it," is worrisome.

She said if kids are watching it, parents should not be afraid to introduce the serious topics portrayed.

Hermantown parent Michelle Simon said she thinks Hermantown should act further than it has, capitalizing on the conversations happening in school.

"Talk about it, take this to the next level," she said. "There should be groups offered at the school or away from school for kids having a hard time."

Schwartz said it was "responsible and prudent" for schools to send home letters like Hermantown's, which shared concerns that students might misinterpret the act of suicide "as being glorified and that the survivors of a suicide victim are to blame."

And people with established risk shouldn't watch it, Schwartz said. The National Association of School Psychologists makes the same recommendation.

Schwartz doesn't think the depiction of the suicide has been romanticized by the show, but the character of Hannah can be seen as "appealing" or "attractive."

"That makes it likely a 12- or 14-year-old is going to watch this and say 'hey, she seems pretty cool and she couldn't manage. So what does that mean for me if I am feeling terrible?'" he said.

Along with suicide and assault, the show tackles bullying, harassment and substance abuse.

Minnesota Department of Health suicide prevention coordinator Melissa Heinen said the message should be clear that "there is no one thing" that causes someone to think about suicide.

An underlying mental illness or substance abuse combined with life adversities can increase the likelihood, but suicide isn't "common," Heinen said, and help is available.

"Most people who are bullied don't kill themselves," she said. "Everyone is talking about how she did it, or the bullying aspect. No one is talking about the good help she could have gotten. She was written to have not received good care, and that's not normal."

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those age 15-24.

The Duluth school district — which has lost three students to suicide in recent years — is discussing sending a letter to parents. Several Twin Cities school districts have also sent warnings home about the show, which is rated for mature audiences, which means 17 and older.

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National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255

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