The very popular Netflix show, “13 Reasons Why” raised much needed discussion about youth suicide prevention in our schools last spring. Many schools responded by sending messages to parents, alerting them of the content of the show and encouraging them to either not let their children watch it at all or to watch it with their children.
Unfortunately, the show had many unsafe messages about youth suicide that many experts believe, will lead to suicide contagion.
At a presentation in Tampa, Florida, shortly after the Netflix’s show aired, a mental health specialist shared that immediately after the show, many adolescents were hospitalized for suicidal actions. Several had attempted suicide in the same manner as Hannah Baker, the suicide victim and show’s protagonist. Here are a few of the many unsafe messages in the show:
- Suicide was portrayed as a logical outcome as a result of bullying.
- Suicide was portrayed as an act of revenge.
- The method of the suicide was shown in a dramatic and horrifying detailed scene.
- Adults were not portrayed as helpful to teenagers and the majority were portrayed as non-existent or oblivious to what was going on in their child’s life.
- The terms mental illness, mental health and depression were not mentioned in the show.
- The school counselor in the show was depicted as non-approachable and non-helpful.
- The most likable character in the show, Clay, stated after the suicide of his friend Hannah Baker, “we need more kindness in the world”. Kindness is certainly important, but is not enough by itself to help a young person struggling with mental illness.
That said, the beginning of the school year is an opportunity for schools to examine and improve their suicide prevention efforts. Unfortunately, youth suicide is at or near an all-time high. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for adolescents in America. It is important to note that the suicide rate for middle school-aged girls has increased more dramatically than any other group in America according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
To gain a better understanding of youth suicide, many school districts have participated in the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBS) for high school students. Schools are encouraged to review their local and state data. The 2015 national YRBS results indicate the following:
- 17.7% percent of high school students seriously thought about attempting suicide in the last twelve months.
- 14.6% actually made a plan to do so in the last twelve months.
- 8.6% actually attempted suicide in the last twelve months.
This means that in a high school of 1000 students, 86 students have made a suicide attempt within the last year. Those with previous history of suicide are the most likely to make a future suicide attempt. The volume of suicidal behavior for young people results in the necessity of schools providing suicide prevention training to all personnel who interact on a regular basis with students. In fact, there is a growing national legislative movement for suicide prevention in schools. In part 2 of this blog, we will take a deeper dive into the discourse and legislation surrounding suicide prevention as it relates to schools.
Dr. Scott Poland is on the advisory board of Safe and Sound Schools and has a long background in schools and suicide prevention. He is the author and co-author of five books, from the 1989 book, Suicide Intervention in Schools, to the 2015 book, Suicide in Schools. He is the co-author of the Suicide Safer School Plan for Texas and the Crisis Action School Toolkit on Suicide for Montana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.