In an unusual step, the Cowichan Valley school district is warning parents about a controversial new Netflix series that deals with teen suicide.
A lengthy letter sent home to parents from superintendent Rod Allen about the 13-episode drama, called 13 Reasons Why, informs them there have been numerous concerns raised about the series from mental health organizations.
Allen said the organizations are stressing the risks and dangers associated with youth watching this series without appropriate adult support and opportunities to debrief the intense content, including the potential risks posed by the sensationalized treatment of youth suicide.
“We encourage parents to watch the series in order to be able to engage in conversations to help their teens make sense of what they are watching,” Allen said.
The series, co-produced by actress and singer Selena Gomez, is based on Jay Asher’s young-adult 2007 bestseller about a high school student who takes her own life and leaves behind 13 audiotapes detailing the events that led to her death, including sexual assault, substance abuse and bullying.
The show is rated TV-MA (may not be suitable for those under 17) and three episodes that contain explicit material have “viewer discretion advised” warnings.
Mental health experts had said they wanted more advisories shown and, in response, Netflix said on May 1 that it has now added a warning before the first episode and “also strengthened the messaging and resource language in the existing cards for episodes that contain graphic subject matter.”
Allen said school counsellors are noting that teenagers are talking about this program and they have also been seeing an increase in unhealthy ways of coping with pain as a result of watching various episodes.
“We know you are influential supports for your teens and you have a pivotal role in diminishing the risks associated with controversial programming such as this by initiating frank discussions,” Allen said in the letter to parents.
“Also, you can help your teen connect to counselling support and mobilize other mental health resources if your teen is experiencing significant emotional pain. The fact that many organizations have expressed concerns about teens watching this program alone or unsupported is why we thought it was essential to reach out to parents, if you weren’t already aware.”
Jessica Keane, a mother of a 13-year-old in the district, said on the Citizen’s Facebook page that she agrees with the district on the issue.
She said she has watched the program and told her son that if he wants to watch it, it will be with his parents so they can talk about it.
“The message in this series is too important to not be talked about,” Keane said.
“I also feel that the visual of what bullying looks like and how it effects the person is very important. Saying to our kids don’t bully and stop it if you see it isn’t good enough. Be detached from the situation and watching it will give context to what parents and teachers are talking about.”
Meagan Anderson said on Facebook that the program is fantastic and she’s shocked it’s getting so much scrutiny.
“It brings to light many issues teenagers face today in the high school dynamic, as well as focusing on the dangers of social media,” she said. “The show is hard for some people to watch because of the realism of it.”
John Scull, president of the Cowichan branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, said he hasn’t seen any of the series, but is familiar with the controversy.
“The general rule for most parents is that if a program is questionable or controversial, they should take the time to watch it with their kids and discuss it with them afterwards,” Scull said.