CLIFTON PARK — A Netflix series about teen suicide has raised concerns for local mental health experts and school officials, but it’s also helped spark a conversation about the often-avoided subject.
The series, titled “13 Reasons Why,” was a topic of a student-led suicide prevention presentation Tuesday night at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library. The presentation was organized by CAPTAIN Youth and Family Services, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Clifton Park that works to address a range of issues, including homelessness, poverty and mental health.
Rebecca Carman, director of policy and community development at Shenendehowa, said the Netflix series has been looming over the district since students returned from spring break, and that the school opted to act quickly to address concerns.
“Kids were saying, ‘My parents don’t even know I’m watching it,’ and that was a huge concern … because of how the series depicted suicide, how things transpired in the Netflix series, and the lack of support that it showed from school staff,” Carman said. She argued against the series’ suggestion that teachers and guidance counselors are unable to help students.
“That’s not true,” she said, adding that a longtime district goal is to encourage teachers to build supportive relationships with students. “There is somebody there in the school that is listening … that will assist students in any capacity needed.”
Tuesday’s presentation was led by student volunteers, called CAPteens, who moderated a question-and-answer panel with child welfare and social workers, county mental health professionals and representatives from the Shenendehowa Central School District. The conversation spanned many topics, including how television and media play a role in the perception of, and reactions to, suicide.
Other local school districts have also responded to the Netflix series, a 13-episode story about a high school student who is driven to take her own life after suffering through bullying and other issues. Some districts have sent letters to parents warning them about the show, and some have been compiling lists of resources teachers can use if they feel a student is at risk or is behaving strangely.
Carman did acknowledge that, while the series isn’t necessarily entertainment the district wants students to see, it at least started a conversation, and she hopes the series will decrease the stigma around dealing with mental illness and spur conversations about suicide.
Another panelist, Michael Prezioso, Saratoga County’s director of Community Services, said that while the series has garnered a lot of attention, he has concerns about the way it depicts suicide and with how young viewers are grappling with what they’ve seen on the show.
“That’s something that has captured some people’s attention,” he said. “There’s concern about the way (suicide is) presented.
“What is available to people, particularly young people, who are watching this, in terms of talking it through after the fact? What kind of support is available?”
Jen Hoffman, a child welfare worker who was also on the panel, watched the show and agreed with Carman: that the show has started a conversation about suicide. But, she added, that was the only positive thing she could say about it. Hoffman lost her 19-year-old daughter to suicide in April of 2013 and urged parents to watch the show with their children, if they decide to let them watch it at all.
Hoffman said communication, and being receptive, is key in helping children work through issues, and that she now makes a point of regularly checking in and chatting with her second daughter and son. On the other side, she urged children to be vocal about things that are bothering them.
“You just have to be willing to talk about it. There’s no shame in talking about it, and it takes such strength to talk about whatever’s going on,” she said.
She also suggested parents take the time to pause the show and check in with their children to make sure they understand the issues, and to answer questions.
“There’s a lot being thrown at them in that, and they might not know how to handle it and process it,” she said.