As teens prepare to watch 13 Reasons Why, 1 school board is putting parents on alert

The Peel District School Board has sent a letter to families alerting them about Friday’s release of season two of 13 Reasons Why — a popular Netflix television show about suicide — warning them of the potential threat it says the show could pose to some children.

Show explores storylines ‘which may be emotionally triggering for vulnerable students,’ Peel school board says

Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker on 13 Reasons Why, a popular Netflix show about suicide. (Netflix)

With Friday's release of season two of 13 Reasons Why — a popular Netflix television show about suicide  — the Peel District School Board (PDSB) is alerting families of the potential threat it says the show could pose to some children.

In a May 17 letter, the PDSB warned the show will explore a number of storylines that could lead to a larger conversation about subjects including sexual assault, gun violence and more, which may be emotionally triggering for vulnerable students.

"Series like this one can lead to misconceptions and misinformation about suicide, and possibly to the glorification of suicide and suicide contagion," the board said in its letter.

"Although this series has been promoted by the creators as a tool to help students recognize their impact on others to prevent suicide, it does not address mental illness or present viable alternatives to suicide, including seeking support from mental health professionals. At no point do the actors seek help from family members, friends or other trusted adults," it continued.

'You can kind of relate'

Petra Korkomaz, a Grade 12 student, said a lot of her peers have watched the show and she too plans to watch the second season.

"As I was watching it, I did really like it because I'm sort of into thrillers," she said of season one.

"Obviously there are some things I don't agree with, like how graphic it was, but overall I think I liked it. I get the whole idea of the season and the purpose of the show, but I think showing the graphics of what went down was really triggering for some people and just inappropriate."

Audrey Siciliano, who watched season one with her mom, said it was "really emotional" to watch, knowing that people in her school are going through the same issues highlighted in the show.
Petra Korkomaz (second from left), Audrey Siciliano (centre), and Amanda Rasteiro (right) speak with CBC reporter Talia Ricci. (CBC)

"You can kind of relate, but not personally, because it's not happening to you, but you know it does happen," she told CBC Toronto.

"Being at high school, you know that that stuff does happen [so] it's hard to watch and know that these things are happening and there's nothing you can do about it. It's hurtful."

'We portrayed it as very ugly'

Last year, Netflix issued a statement following the growing controversy around the series, saying mental health experts were consulted during the production, "to show how these issues impact teens in real and dramatic ways."

The series, co-produced by pop star Selena Gomez, cites bullying, sexual assault and tumultuous teenage relationships as catalysts for the suicide. Amid the controversy, Writer Brian Yorkey told the Associated Press, "What we did was portray suicide and we portrayed it as very ugly and very damaging."

But Jim Van Buskirk, the Peel school board's chief social worker, said administrators wanted to bring the potential concerns to parents' attention so they could be aware and work with their children. 

"We wanted to ensure parents were aware that the season was being released today so they could have an opportunity to speak to their children about it," he told CBC Toronto.

"For our most vulnerable students, this could be a triggering program because of the content. We really want to focus on relaying issues around hope and resiliency. And that's really not part of the program."

Peel District School Board's chief social worker Jim Van Buskirk says there are potential concerns with 13 Reasons Why, which they wanted to bring to parents’ attention so they could be aware and work with their children. (CBC)

The board said while it is unaware of any specific incidents related to this series, it will continue to do everything to support student mental health and well-being needs.

As students raise questions about the series, staff will address the content in ways that are sensitive and appropriate, especially with our most vulnerable students, it said.

"There's support for people who are having a hard time. Troubled times pass, they don't last. Suicide is not a common response. It's an extreme response to stress," Van Buskirk said.

Bracing for spike in phone calls

Meanwhile, executive director of the George Hull Centre for Families, Susan Chamberlain said at the time that season one came out, they had an increase in reports of suicidal behaviour among clients.

"We had parents calling in with concerns and current clients who were experiencing increased symptoms of distress," she told CBC Toronto. 

"It's a bit unlike anything we've seen before. So, what's interesting about it is the suicide isn't seen as a final act because that character who in fact dies at the beginning of the series, is still part of the show all the way through." 

Executive director of George Hull Centre for Families, Susan Chamberlain said at the time season one came out, they had an increase in reports of suicidal behaviour among clients. (CBC)

Chamberlain adds that the show doesn't depict adults as being allies of kids and there isn't an opportunity to kids to view adults as helpful in the show. 

"The timing isn't great. This is an extremely stressful time for many kids. Which elevates their anxiety and worry and feelings of self doubt," she said.

"Also, it's happening just before summer which is a time when kids are typically not having as much contact with adults in their regular life that they might seek to get support from."

With the release of season two, Chamberlain anticipates that there will be a spike in phone calls from current clients and new clients seeking services.

But she is hopeful the show will serve as a tool to encourage dialogue on the troubling subject of suicides.

"It isn't a bad thing to talk about feelings of incredible sadness and sucidality and harm, those are all good things to talk about," she said, adding that she hopes parents will watch alongside their kids so that they can have an "open dialogue" about the show's themes.

Tips from PDSB to parents

  • Ask your child/teen if they have heard of or seen this series

  • Encourage critical thinking and remind them that the series is fictional and includes many unrealistic elements
  • Remind them that it is normal to experience periods of stress and distress
  • Offer healthy coping strategies, e.g. exercise, talking to friends, exploring nature
  • Remind them to always seek support if they need it from family members, counsellors, coaches, teachers, faith leaders, and/or a crisis line like Kids Help Phone, 1-800-668-6868, etc
  • Talk openly about emotional distress and suicide
  • If you have concerns about your child's/teen's mental health, see your family physician and speak to the principal or vice-principal right away

With files from Talia Ricci