The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” is raising awareness about suicide, but at what cost?


GENEVA — Dianna Paige was in the ninth grade and had a friend’s life in her hands.

“I had to check her arms in the bathroom stall every single day to make sure she wasn’t hurting herself,” said Paige, 19, a student at Hobart and and William Smith Colleges.

That friend wasn’t the only one she knew battling depression. “The shock and recognition of my friends that were struggling, without resources or support” is what led her to become a mental health advocate, Paige said.

Paige is a member of the Ontario County Suicide Prevention Coalition and this summer, an intern with Family Counseling Service of the Finger Lakes. As a senior at Fairport High School, she produced a video of a mental health awareness project involving 1,500 students called “If You Really Knew Me (Fairport High School).”

Her work revealed the seriousness of mental health. Paige and others are working to break the stigma, raise awareness, and ensure that everyone who needs help, gets help — before it’s too late.

"13 Reasons Why"

Nationwide, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between 10 and 24, according to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Suicide statistics for Ontario County are in line with the national average. Countywide, 137 peopled died by suicide over the past decade. In 2016, 13 people took their own life.

The recent controversy over the Netflix show "13 Reasons Why” has brought the issue to the forefront. The show centers on a high school student who kills herself and leaves behind 13 cassette tapes explaining who’s to blame for her suffering. The show’s effect on teens, especially those who binge watch and may be prone to acting on what they see, has people worried.

Paige has watched the show. She calls it a “revenge fantasy.” It doesn’t accurately portray suicide, she said. When someone takes their own life, it’s not out of spite, said Paige.

“The real reason people take their own life is to end their pain,” Paige said.

Others agree.

Eric Weaver is executive director of Overcoming the Darkness. His Victor-based organization works to reduce the stigma, increase understanding and openly discuss issues of mental illness and suicide. “13 Reasons Why” brings suicide to the forefront, he said.

“But it lacks a message of hope, a message of recovery, a message it is preventable,” Weaver said.

Renae Campbell is a counselor for programs through Partnership for Ontario County and at the Community Support Center at 120 N. Main St. in Canandaigua.

“People want to be better, to do better,” said Campbell, who counsels at the Family Support Centers in four area school districts: Canandaigua, Geneva, Marcus Whitman and Midlakes. She said individuals and families struggling with mental health need to know there is help and they can open up without being judged.

Campbell has a philosophy. “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about,” she said. “Be kind always. Never deprive someone of hope. It may be all they have left.”

Campbell said it is difficult with mental illness because “the stigma is huge.”

Just 41 percent of people get help for mental illness, leaving nearly 60 percent who never see anybody for help, said Weaver. Like physical health, mental health plays an important role at every stage of life and the correlation between mental health and suicide is evident, he said. Ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death, he said.

This from the American Association of Suicidology: In 2015 there were 44,193 reported suicide deaths in the United States — equivalent to a fully loaded airliner crashing every other day. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States for all age groups.

Weaver said the number one protective factor against suicide for a young person is feeling close to at least one adult. It could be a parent or other relative, teacher, coach or any trusted adult.

Staying close and involved means you can talk about “13 Reasons Why” and other issues that involve suicide and mental health.

“13 Reasons Why Not”

Reacting to “13 Reasons Why,” high school students at Oxford High in Michigan completed a project called “13 Reasons Why Not.” The project was done in memory of a freshman student who took her life four years ago, the Oakland Press reports. It sends the message that “suicide is not an option."

“In the popular Netflix show ‘13 Reasons Why,’ the main character gives 13 reasons why she wants to die. But, for students at Oxford High School, they are giving 13 reasons to live,” the Press reports.

For 13 days, a recording of different students played during the morning announcements. In the recording, students revealed a problem they're struggling with and at the end of the recording, instead of blaming someone, the students thank a classmate who has helped them.

The project was in memory of Megan Abbott, 15, who killed herself on May 31, 2013, in a wooded area behind Oxford High School. Her sister Morgan is a junior at the school.

"I think if Megan had something like this going on in school when she was there, we would have had more time with her," Morgan said about the project.

“If you Really Knew Me (Fairport High School)”

In fall 2014, all 1,500 students at Fairport High School attended an assembly, "True Colors," which was aimed at spreading awareness of mental health and the effects of bullying. One activity was titled, "If You Really Knew Me." In a video Paige published on YouTube in 2015, she explains the project and shares a sample of responses.

Each student filled out an anonymous card, writing down something they never shared with anyone. Of 1,300 responses, 466 dealt with depression and anxiety, 206 with struggles at home (from finances to abuse), 226 with body image and self-hatred, and 84, self-hatred and suicide.

With the stacks of cards in front of her, the negative and positive response cards piled separately for comparison, Paige comments on the results.

“Mental health is not seen as a serious problem in today’s society so most people suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues are afraid to open up and ask for help,” she said. “Being a teenager is hard enough from a physiological standpoint. But add the tremendous amount of stress of school, the expectations to always succeed, to always get straight As, to be popular, to be pretty, or skinny or athletic or strong. The expectation of perfection, this is the explanation for what you have seen in this presentation. It is time to start the movement of raising awareness of mental health.”

Talking about suicide

In a recent letter to parents of Canandaigua Academy students, Principal Vern Tenney addressed the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.”

“Many of our students have viewed it or have heard conversations about it,” Tenney wrote. His letter talks about how the series can provoke conflicting emotions.

“Some might find the content and interactions of the characters disturbing and traumatic. … While many of our children are resilient and capable of differentiating between a TV drama and real life, engaging in thoughtful conversations with them about the show is vital. Doing so presents an opportunity to help them process the issues addressed, consider the consequences of certain choices, and reinforce the message that suicide is not a solution to problems and that help is available,” according to Tenney’s letter.

The letter points parents to National Association of School Psychologists for advice talking about the series and mental health in general. It includes Suicide Risk Warning Signs and links to online help.

Donna Besler is a parent of two students in the Canandaigua schools. In 2014, Besler lost her son, Brennan, 19, to suicide.

Brennan was a college sophomore at Pepperdine University in California when he took his life after self-medicating to deal with depression. Raising awareness about mental health and preventing suicide is now a mission of Besler’s. She said she is happy to see the school district reaching out to parents.

“They are not trying to parent for us but to partner with us,” Besler said. “I am all for working together to keep my children and this community safe.”

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (8255)