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Teachers can steer 13 Reasons discussions in the right direction

May 16, 2017 Tracy Johnson, Canadian Mental Health Association

By now you have likely heard about 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix series about a teenage girl’s suicide and the audio-taped messages she left behind for the individuals she feels contributed to her decision to end her life.

Based on a best-selling young-adult novel, the show is an attempt to open up a dialogue about bullying, suicide, sexual assault and self-injury, but unfortunately it does so in a very irresponsible and harmful way. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and the Centre for Suicide Prevention, among others, have released official statements due to the show’s problematic portrayal of suicide.

This portrayal is problematic because it strays from several of the responsible media guidelines established by the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. For one, it’s too specific about the suicide method used (media should not name the means, let alone show the suicide itself). It also portrays the main character’s suicide, and the subsequent events, as dramatic, exciting and romanticized (finally, people understand her side!). Lastly, it implies that suicide is a logical conclusion to the main character’s situation (of course she killed herself, look what she went through!).

Not only can this show be a trigger to people who have lost someone to suicide or experienced bullying, sexual assault, self-injury or suicidal ideation, but its problematic aspects perpetuate myths and stigmas. It implies that justice is achieved when you kill yourself (your bullies get shamed/punished); that a person’s death by suicide is the fault of others (a falsehood that is harmful to those who have known someone who has died by suicide); and, finally, that reaching out for help doesn’t pay off because adults are not helpful or supportive.

Of course, the show is fictional, but we can learn from it. Adults need to know that bullying, sexual assault, self-injury, depression and suicidal ideation are not the average experiences that are to be expected in teens, and we need to respond to anyone who shows signs of these crises. If a person is talking about suicide or making statements about the desire to die; if there are sudden changes in behaviour, like irritability, apathy or withdrawal; if there are signs of depression, including bouts of crying or loss of interest in activities or hobbies, these are signs that a person may be thinking about suicide.

If you see these signs, take them seriously and reach out to the person. Ask directly if they are thinking about suicide and have an open conversation without judgment. Contact emergency services if the risk is imminent. Finally, always connect that person and their parent(s)/guardian(s) with professional help. For more information on how to help someone at risk of suicide, consider specialized training.

Now that the show is out there, how should teachers and schools respond? I suggest continuing that conversation in a safe and thoughtful way. Contact a local CMHA or other mental health organization and inquire if they have programs designed to bring awareness to youth suicide. Educate students and staff and provide resources regarding alternatives to suicide. These alternatives can include crisis numbers, reaching out to a caring adult or receiving counselling. Talk about positive outcomes for those who have experienced suicidal crisis — with help, people can go on to live fulfilling lives. Or showcase preselected content from initiatives like #13reasonswhynot.

I also suggest that teachers educate themselves on ways to talk about the topic if it does come up in school. The National Association of School Psychologists and the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board have tips for discussing the show, and the Centre for Suicide Prevention has lesson plans for those who choose to use the book as a teaching aid (using the Netflix show is not recommended). Finally, take this conversation one step further and discuss suicide prevention with administrators. Does your school have a suicide prevention strategy? Are there staff specifically trained in suicide intervention? Do all staff know the procedures if there are signs that a student (or staff member) is at risk for suicide? Is your school prepared to respond appropriately if there is a death by suicide in the school community?

Instead of supressing the conversation, we should take this opportunity to guide it in the right direction. ❚

Tracy Johnson is the team lead of education services for the Canadian Mental Health Association, Edmonton Region.

This opinion column represents the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

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