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’13 Reasons Why’ is provocative and devastating. Is it also dangerous?

May 2, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Netflix’s new drama “13 Reasons Why” centers on a teenage girl’s suicide. And although the show may bring awareness to mental health issues, some worry the depiction strays from entertainment to pose a threat to impressionable students. William Brangham explores the controversy with Dr. Christina Conolly of Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools and Variety’s Sonia Saraiya.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Can a dramatic depiction of suicide go too far?

A new series on Netflix about a teenage girl’s tragic death has some school districts and mental health experts worried that the show has gone beyond just entertainment, and could pose a threat to young students.

William Brangham explores the controversy.

It’s part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

And a warning: The story contains graphic content.

KATHERINE LANGFORD, Actress: Some of you cared. None of you cared enough. Neither did I.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: “13 Reasons Why” tells the fictional story of Hannah Baker, a 17-year-old high school student who takes her own life. Hannah leaves behind 13 cassette tapes, where she narrates the events leading up to her suicide.

KATHERINE LANGFORD: Hey, it’s Hannah. Hannah Baker.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Each tape centers around one person, and, in it, Hannah tries to explain why that person was or wasn’t to blame for her death.

KATHERINE LANGFORD: Don’t adjust your — whatever device you’re hearing this on. It’s me, live and in stereo. Get a snack, settle in, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life, more specifically why my life ended. And if you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The show, which was released in its entirety a month ago, brutally depicts some very tough topics: hazing, cyber-bullying, and rape.

Hannah’s own rape by one of her classmates is unsparingly shown. The series is based on a 2007 young adult novel by Jay Asher, and it was produced by singer Selena Gomez.

Since its release, school boards around the country have sent warning letters to parents, alerting them to the show, offering ways to talk about its content with their kids, but also suggesting that some kids probably shouldn’t watch it. Among the concerns cited is the very explicit way Hannah’s suicide is shown in the final episode.

KATHERINE LANGFORD: Pardon me, but you really hurt my feelings.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Some psychologists say it glorifies suicide. Others worry it could lead to copycat behavior.

The National Association of School Psychologists advised teenagers who suffer from suicidal thoughts not to watch at all, saying it “may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters.”

Both groups found fault with the notion of Hannah sending these taped messages from beyond the grave, and criticized the depiction of a school counselor on the show who, they argue, fails to follow up on Hannah’s obvious distress.

Following the outcry, Netflix says it will add a warning at the beginning the series, in addition to the warnings in front of the most graphic episodes.

And from the beginning, the show’s creators say they consulted mental health experts, and tried hard not to glamorize suicide.

Brian Yorkey is one of the show’s creators.

BRIAN YORKEY, Co-Creator, “13 Reasons Why”: We did want it to be painful to watch, because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing in any way worthwhile about suicide.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We asked the NewsHour’s own Student Reporting Labs to ask some high schoolers for their take on the series.

Some applauded the show.

JULIA, Daniel Pearl Magnet High School, California: I thought the series would help students that were grappling with suicide, just because the show promoted awareness for students who deal with suicide and depression, and they wanted it to start conversations. So, it became so popular and so many people were talking about it, that I felt like it did.

JAYLA, John F Kennedy High School, Maryland: I really think that it’s important for adults to know how much social media impacts us now. It’s a different time, and social media is one of the biggest reasons why suicide happens nowadays.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Others were concerned about how the show dealt with suicide and mental health.

ZOIE, Fraser High School, Michigan: I feel like there is a lot of younger audiences who watch it, and that they watch it and they get the wrong idea that maybe suicide is OK or suicide is romantic, or maybe, if I kill myself, there will be a boy somewhere who turns out to be in love with me.

It shows the pain that others are suffering, but it doesn’t really address the fact that Hannah is dead.

MUNA, Lewis and Clark Middle School, Nebraska: The message behind it was to be kind to everyone so, like, they don’t commit suicide. But, in the show, no one helped her. The counselor didn’t help her. Like, all the students didn’t help her. Like, she reached out to people, but none of them, like, tried to help her,.

And that, like, it brings a bad message to people who actually have depression and stuff, like they can’t talk to someone about it, like no one’s going to listen.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, is “13 Reasons Why” just a powerful, provocative drama, or something more troubling?

I’m joined now by Dr. Christina Conolly, who oversees psychological services for all the public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, and by Sonia Saraiya, a TV critic for “Variety.”

Welcome to you both.

DR. CHRISTINA CONOLLY, Montgomery County, Maryland Public Schools: Thank you for having us.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Dr. Conolly, I would like to start with you first.

Before we get to some of the concerns about this show, I know your job is to oversee 100 school psychologists. You look out for the welfare of young people, but, as a person, as a viewer that watched this show, what was your reaction when you saw it?

DR. CHRISTINA CONOLLY: Initially, the show is very provocative.

I first watched like an episode a day, and I was watching at night after work, and I was like, like, oh, my goodness. And it really draws you in. And then, at the end, like, over the weekend, I was like, OK, I have to finish it. So, I watched like four or five episodes at once.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So you did a little binge-watching yourself.

DR. CHRISTINA CONOLLY: I did a little binge-watching myself.

And it was very emotional. I had trouble sleeping after watching it. I even cried after the episode tape — Clay’s tape. And it was just very heart-wrenching to see everything that was occurring, all the negative experiences that Hannah went through.

And all I kept thinking, OK, oh, my goodness. I can only imagine teenagers watching this, especially vulnerable teenagers, and wondering, how are they feeling with this? Because I’m an adult. I’m a mental health professional.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I’m just going to stop you.

DR. CHRISTINA CONOLLY: OK, stop me.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Just be careful about banging on your microphone there.

DR. CHRISTINA CONOLLY: Oh, OK. Sorry.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Tell me a little bit more about those concerns.

What is it that you worry about a kid who might be having some — suffer from some sort of psychological trouble, what’s the fear?

DR. CHRISTINA CONOLLY: The biggest fear is that there will be copycat behavior, that they will watch Hannah’s death, watch her die by suicide, because it graphically shows her with the razor cutting her wrists, and say, is this how I can die by suicide? Is this how — kind of like a recipe for how I can die, how — a way of coping with what’s happened.

And that is not — as educators, as mental health professionals, we do not want students and other adolescents following along in — with what Hannah has done.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Does that actually happen? Is there evidence that copycat suicides really do occur?

DR. CHRISTINA CONOLLY: Yes, there is research out there showing that suicide can be contagious. It can be copycat, especially — even in schools.

Even in the series itself, there is Hannah who dies by suicide. In the last episode, there is another student, Alex, who was involved in the tapes and then he attempts suicide. So, absolutely, this can happen in schools.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sonia Saraiya, I would like to turn to you.

Again, before we get to the concerns that have been raised about the series, as a TV critic, as someone who analyzes this as a piece of art, what was your reaction to the series?

SONIA SARAIYA, Variety: You know, I found it extremely compelling.

I think that Christina’s experience of watching it was one I felt, too. I wasn’t expecting to be so taken in by a show that was aimed at teenagers, and I really ended up bingeing it in the same way.

And part of it is because, you know, more than being about teenagers and being about their feelings, the show is constructed really brilliantly. Brian Yorkey, who adapted the show from Jay Asher’s novel, it’s adapted so well as a TV series, with each tape being an episode.

You feel like you’re in a mystery story, even though you know what’s going to happen. And there’s something very moody, almost noirish about the way that the atmosphere of the school was constructed.

That’s a very compelling atmosphere. And it was really easy to sink into it and to watch this whole story with these characters who were really going through a lot.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sonia, how would you respond to that concern, though, that it in some ways could be seen as a guidebook, a textbook, that a young woman goes through some very troubling things? This is not to discount the things that happen to her in the series.

It’s really awful things that she experiences, but that we see the resolution of that is her suicide, and then this very long sort of — what some have argued is a sort of revenge fantasy played out on all of her classmates, how do you respond to that, that that’s not really a great thing to be showing kids?

SONIA SARAIYA: Stories are not always about recreating what’s happening.

They’re about showing us the — showing us what happens with these characters in this story, in this world, so that we can take away something from it. If you were someone who was thinking about this, you would understand what it might do to the people around you, what it — how difficult it might be for your parents to find you in that situation.

And you might also feel that, if someone else had gone through this experience, that you were not so alone in your experience of it, especially because one of the main takeaways of “13 Reasons Why,” I think, is that you know Hannah’s going to do this, but you also see how much of a mistake it is, as you see the entire texture of her life and how many people love her and care about her, even though they weren’t able to express it in the right ways throughout her life when she needed those crises.

At the end, you don’t think it was a good idea. You know, that certainly wasn’t the takeaway that I think a lot of people are taking away from the show anyway. To me, it seems like she — it was a mistake. She really had a lot to live for.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, Christina, what do you think about that, the idea that, in some ways, this really does show the emotional wreckage, not only that cyber-bullying and rape and the assaults and all of those things do to her, but also her own death and the aftermath of that?

Could that be — from your experience as a mental health professional, could that be cathartic for a lot of kids?

DR. CHRISTINA CONOLLY: I think that, for kids, showing — giving information about what can be part of the high school experience, these negative experiences that can occur, these do happen in real life.

And, as educators, we have to be aware of that. We have to help to promote to our parents that these things are happening. Our goal is to make sure that our parents and our teachers and other staff members at schools know that the show is happening, kids are watching it. They’re in lunchroom talking about it, on the bus.

What can we do to help them? And, as they talked about, one of the big things was the counselor, and parents were not shown or teachers were not shown in a way as a helper. We want people to know that that’s not the case.

And, in school, we want students to know that they should have a trusted adult in their life that they can go to when things are going wrong, and that educators and their parents are people that they can go to when these things happen, unlike Hannah, who went to this counselor.

The majority of mental health professionals are not like that, and we just want people to understand that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Could the series still have retained its power and changed it a little bit that would make it more — that you would be more comfortable with its depiction of all of this?

DR. CHRISTINA CONOLLY: They go through and they talk about these horrible things that have happened.

And then they — in the end, they show Hannah’s death by suicide. But they don’t show, where can you go to get help? What are things that adolescents can do when these things are happening? They show the substance use, binge-drinking, drinking and driving, the rape, the stalking, all these things, but never does the show go into, where can you go and how do you get help?

How does your friend help others? When you see your friend who is going through this, where can they get help? But also that Hannah more than likely has a mental health disorder. Over 90 percent of individuals who die by suicide have a mental health disorder, and the show doesn’t discuss that at all.

And mental health disorders are treatable, and so that, if we help to treat the mental health disorder, that helps to us prevent suicide.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Dr. Christina Conolly, Sonia Saraiya, thank you both very much.

DR. CHRISTINA CONOLLY: Thank you for having me.

SONIA SARAIYA: Thank you, William.

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