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Editorial: Don’t close ears to the suicide issue

TIMES COLONIST

JUNE 27, 2017 12:57 AM

Schools in Greater Victoria, like others across North America, are confronting the fallout from a Netflix series about bullying, teen suicide and sexual assault. For teachers, parents and teens, the show’s sudden popularity has put mental health on the front burner, and left them looking for help.

The series 13 Reasons Why is based on a young-adult novel, and tells the story of a teenage girl who commits suicide. Before she dies, she leaves 13 audio tapes for people in her life who contributed to her final decision. Since it premièred in March, it has become the most-discussed program of 2017 on social media, with more than 11 million tweets on Twitter in the first three weeks. The scenes of rape and suicide are graphic and disturbing, but it has struck a chord with teens. The series is arguably aimed more at adults than children, but that hasn’t stopped teens from devouring it.

There are reports that the show has prompted thousands of young people to talk about the issues of bullying, assault and suicide that they see in their own lives, but that raises concerns about whether it could trigger suicidal thoughts.The organization Safer Schools Together says it has found no cases where young people said the show lowered their risk of suicide, but “we do know of multiple cases (coast to coast) where it has increased their risk.”

Schools and mental-health experts across North America are worried about how to respond.

In B.C., the Ministry of Education has warned districts to be aware of the show, and has produced material to foster discussion between parents and teens, through Safer Schools Together and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. In the Greater Victoria School District, administrators passed the province’s information to all seven high schools and 10 middle schools. Most of them handed it on to parents. Officials say the response from parents has been positive.

In Ontario, some school boards have written policies on how to deal with the show. They instructed teachers not to use the show as a teaching tool or to bring it up in class, but to respond if students raised it. Some boards have reached out to parents, while others communicated just with teachers.

School districts couldn’t be sure how many parents were aware that their children were thinking and talking about the series. As Sooke school district superintendent Jim Cambridge said: “We were more concerned with the notion that it may have passed over some parents’ and guardians’ radar, simply because it was on Netflix.”

Netflix has added content warnings to all the episodes and has created a website, 13ReasonsWhy.info, for viewers who want to find mental-health resources.

On the Island, help for parents and teens is available through the Vancouver Island Crisis Society, or through child, youth and family mental-health resources.

We can’t wish away the show, any more than we can wish away the traumas it dramatizes. Young people are talking about both, and parents and teachers cannot close their ears.

Most parents are not trained to provide mental-health care. Most are nervous, if not terrified, of saying or doing the wrong thing when subjects such as suicide come up. But it’s important to be open to teens’ concerns and to listen to them without judgment. Parents and teachers can guide young people toward help — if they know the teen needs help. Psychologists say that raising the issue of suicide with your children does not plant the idea or increase the risk, but it can open the door to offering help. They remind us that suicide is preventable.