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Schools send letter home about popular Netflix show ’13 Reasons Why’

KINGSTON, Wash. -- Local schools are advising parents they may want to discuss a popular Netflix series about suicide with their children. Kingston Middle School, Lea Hill Elementary in Auburn and the North Thurston School District all sent an email to parents about the show "13 Reasons Why."

The series is based on a 2007 young adult book by Jay Asher. The fictional series follows a teenage girl named Hannah Baker who leaves behind audio recordings on tapes after killing herself-- explaining to her classmates, and eventually school counselor and parents, why she killed herself.

Each recording speaks to a person who she says played a role in her decision to kill herself.

Michael Barber, of Marysville, says he has a number of reasons why he’s banned his teenage daughter from viewing the show.

“I wish I would have had a warning and then she wouldn’t have watched any of it. It builds up to this big exciting thing at the end; that’s not exciting and not good and not an answer. Suicide should never be the answer.”

Child psychologist Gregory Jantz says he applauds school officials for the email alert and says this could be a great opportunity to talk to our kids - in a non-judgmental way.

"We want to talk about what’s going on for a kid and what’s going on for a friend," Jantz said. "We need to be very careful about glorifying suicide. One of the things that is so important to understand is suicide is the number one cause of death for teenagers.”

Mental health experts have widely voiced their concern about the show since its March 31 premiere.

The National Association of School Psychologists dedicated a whole blog entry to the series, saying the show could bring potential risks posed by the sensationalized treatment of youth suicide. They say they don't recommend that vulnerable youth watch the series.

"Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies," said the National Association of School Psychologists. "They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character."

The NASP points to research shows that exposure to another person’s suicide can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide.

The NASP encourages parents and school psychologists and teachers to engage in supportive conversations with students and outlines how to talk to children about "13 Reasons Why."

It's something Kingston Middle School, Lea Hill Elementary and the North Thurston School District are already doing. Below is an email school employees from Kingston sent to parents on April 14:

Has your child been watching this show? 13 Reasons Why on Netflix.

Teens suicide is a major concern in today's society. The Youth Suicide Prevention Program states that 1 out of 10 students indicated that they had made a suicide attempt in the past 12 months in Washington state (2015). Many students have heard of the show “13 Reasons Why” (2017) released on Netflix. The show is based on a bestselling novel called 13 Reasons Why written by Jay Asher. The show and book is about a teen girl's retrospective look at reasons for committing suicide, which she articulates in audio tapes and she sends to 13 people, mailing them on the day of her death. The book/show includes discussion of rape, underage drinking, sexism, and survivor's guilt.

If your child has watched the show or read the book, here are some issues you may want to discuss with your child:

-The importance of treating people with kindness

-Family expectations around underage drinking

-Who students can openly and honestly talk to about emotional distress and suicide

Parents, school counselors, pastors, teachers

-How the school counselor in 13 reasons why responds to Hannah’s thoughts of suicide and discussion around date rape is not appropriate and not typical of most counselors. Remind students school counselors are professionals and a trustworthy source for help.

-How to cope with the death of a friend, parent, and/ or loved one.

Additional talking points are available at the Kingston Middle School Website under the Counseling Office tab or by clicking here.

A similar, but shorter email was sent to students at Lea Hill Elementary in Auburn.

Dear Lea Hill Families,
You may have heard of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Due to its popularity right now, your child may be aware of the show.
You should be aware of the mature content.
This show is about a high school student who commits suicide.
The show graphically addresses suicide, rape, underage drinking, sexism, and survivor's guilt.

 Here is the email sent to all families in the North Thurston School District:

As you know, we like to keep parents informed about mental health and social media issues impacting our students. Recently we have become aware of a new Netflix series called "Thirteen Reasons Why." It is based on a popular novel by the same name.

We understand that many students - from elementary to high school -- are watching and talking about this series, which includes graphic and sensitive issues including suicide, rape and bullying. We are concerned about the questions and feelings this series may raise with students, especially if they are watching it unsupervised. They may need to talk to you about it.

We have provided our counselors some talking points around this series and encourage you to use them. If you have concerns about your own child's mental health issues or have questions please don't hesitate to call your school counselor. You can also call the 24-7 Crisis Clinic at 360-586-2800. They have community many resources. We have mental health specialists on our staff as well.

If you need a translation of the document please contact our office or use Google Translate.

Suicide affects everyone and we want parents to be a part of the solution to prevent it.

Not everyone is against the show. Some say it teaches kids how to identify warning signs of depression or suicide.

One student told the Kitsap Sun that the graphic nature of the show serves a purpose and doesn't sugar coat the reality of suicide.

One of the writers of the series defended his decision to make the show so graphic and intense in a Vanity Fair article. 

He wrote that he once attempted suicide, and argued that the show should depict the suicide with as much detail and accuracy as possible. He said as he started to swallow pills in his own attempt, he remembered a woman who had told him about the excruciating pain she had felt when she attempted suicide. That memory stopped him from killing himself.

"If that woman had not told me her story, I wouldn’t be here now. I would’ve missed out on all the amazing gifts I have in my life today," writer Nic Sheff said.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the CDC.  The CDC says each year, approximately 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries across the U.S.

The North Thurston School District sent home Talking Points to have with your student.

If you or someone you know if having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.