A controversial Netflix series that deals with teen suicide and sexual assault has brought the issues of bullying and mental illness back into focus for school administrators in the capital region.
13 Reasons Why, based on the best-selling young adult novel of the same name, prompted the Ministry of Education to issue an advisory last week, warning school districts of risks it may present to vulnerable students.
It included a list of talking points to encourage discussion between parents and teens, courtesy of organizations Safer Schools Together and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.
The series follows the fictional story of a teen girl who kills herself and leaves behind 13 audiotapes detailing the events that led to her death, including sexual assault, substance abuse and bullying. It includes a scene of the girl’s death, prompting criticism it is romanticizing suicide.
Greater Victoria school district superintendent Piet Langstraat said he forwarded the advisory and supplemental material to school officials, but left the decision on whether to send messages to parents up to individual school counsellors and administrators.
“I’m always hesitant to reach into the homes of parents and say this is what you should and should not do,” Langstraat said. “But, at the same time, I think it’s important to provide the support, should it be necessary.”
All seven high schools and 10 middle schools in the district were given the material, and most passed along the information to parents.
Harold Caldwell, director of learning support for the Greater Victoria school district, said the response has been positive. “Nothing negative at all,” he said.
The show premièred March 31 and almost immediately ignited a social media firestorm. In the span of just three weeks, it generated more than 11 million tweets on Twitter, making it the most-discussed television show of 2017, according to Variety.
Sooke school district superintendent Jim Cambridge felt it was important to supply relevant information to every parent in his school district, without admonishing the show itself.
“We were more concerned with the notion that it may have passed over some parents and guardians’ radar, simply because it was on Netflix,” he said.
The series has been praised for its realistic portrayal of several sensitive issues, but has also prompted concerns. According to the TV Parental Guidelines rating system in the United States, shows with 13 Reasons Why’s rating “may be unsuitable for children under 17.”
Viewer discretion warnings were already in place for some episodes. Netflix announced in a statement Monday it has added warnings to all 13 episodes in the series.
The streaming service defended the show as a “valuable driver” for young viewers to start “important conversation with their families” and has produced an additional special, Beyond the Reasons, to explore mental-health topics featured in the drama.
The streaming service has also created a website, 13ReasonsWhy.info, to connect people with mental-health resources.
Saanich school district superintendent Keven Elder, who has watched the entire series, applauded the program for its believability. “I thought it did a good job of demonstrating the kind of harm that can come from bad behaviour among peers,” Elder said. “I thought the message was very clear to be watchful of these things, and to not turn away from them.”
The possibility that some students might see it as glorifying suicide is a “real worry,” he said.
“But there is a lot of good to be taken from viewing it, if it wakes people up to the kinds of things that we too often turn away from.”
• Child, youth and family mental-health resources are available by calling:
250-952-5073 in Saanich
250-356-1123 in Victoria
250-952-4073 for aboriginal resources
• Suicide Helpline — 1-800-784-2433
• Vancouver Island Crisis Society — 1-888-494-3888 or vicrisis.ca
• Kids Help Phone — 1-800-668-6868 or kidshelpphone.ca