A CHANCE TO TALK: Catholic Charities of Tennessee will host a conversation on "13 Reasons Why," on May 23. Catholic Charities counselors from both the Individual and Family Counseling Program and the School Counseling program will help lead the conversation. Separate parent and student discussions will be offered.
WHEN: 6:30-7:30 p.m., May 23 WHERE: Cafeteria of St. Edward School (190 Thompson Lane, Nashville)
RSVP: Reservations are requested. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 615-760-4428
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When Emmely Duncan found out her 12-year-old watched several episodes of the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why," the Franklin mom wasn't too worried - at first. Duncan had seen the trailers. It looked like a typical tween drama.
"I didn't realize it was rated for mature audiences," she said.
Like any mom, Duncan started reading more about it online. What she found is this: "13 Reasons Why" is the most controversial series today.
Based on the New York Times-bestselling young adult novel by Jay Asher, the 13-episode series is narrated by main character Hannah Baker, a high school student who kills herself and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes identifying the people she considers responsible for her decision.
It debuted March 31, and even amid controversy Netflix announced on social media Sunday that it has renewed the show for a second season.
The first season graphically depicts teen violence, rape and suicide.
It has been praised for its uncompromising portrayal of bullying and assault and recognized for starting conversations about suicide, the second-leading cause of death among teens.
At the same time, it has been ridiculed for its sensationalism and failure to appropriately encourage students - or anyone watching - to reach out and get the mental health assistance they may need.
Experts also suggest the glamorization of suicide can result in copycat behaviors and be dangerous to those already at risk.
That was personal for Duncan. Her brother killed himself when he was 24.
She decided she needed to talk to her daughter, and invited her out to breakfast. As they sat in Mercantile Deli in the Franklin Square, Duncan learned her sixth-grader had gotten to the first of two rape scenes in the series. Together, mother and daughter talked about how it happened, how that made her feel, and what she would do in a similar situation - all the things you talk to your girl about regarding sexual assault.It was a good, constructive conversation, Duncan said, but questions remained.
Do I let her continue to watch it? Do I watch it with her? Do I forbid it?
"I am 100 percent behind talking about suicide, understanding it, knowing the warning signs and understanding how to help," said Duncan, a former board member for Mental Health America of Middle Tennessee. "I think that's incredibly important. But I think it has to be done responsibility, without sensationalism.
"Quite frankly," Duncan said, "no one needs to see a graphic depiction of suicide to know how bad it is."
An opportunity for conversation or a reason for concern?
Since the series' release in April, mental health professionals have been doing damage control. School districts around the country - including Middle Tennessee - have issued letters to parents cautioning them about the potential risks of letting their children watch. Local counselors have created talking points to share with principals and teachers. And parents are left with the decision of whether or not to let their children watch.It is gripping, intense and, at times, very hard to watch.
"I do think it's admirable to produce series that address this topic and I'm sure "13 Reasons" has created an opportunity for many families to discuss it, where no opportunity previously existed," Duncan said. "The problem with this particular series is that it didn't provide enough info beyond the story for viewers who may not have anyone to discuss the content with them."
Students are watching, and it is triggering many reactions.
Here are national and Nashville-based organizations to offer support for those suicidal and at-risk teens and adults.
•National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
•Crisis Text Line (if you are immediately concerned about a friend or yourself) text: HOME to 741741
•Oasis Center (support for at-risk youth): 615-327-4455
•Sexual Assault Center of Middle Tennessee: 1-800-879-1999
•For non-emergency information on suicide prevention, contact the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network at 615-297-1077 or email@example.com.Local schools send out letters warning parents about content
Williamson County Schools included an article in its weekly InFocus newsletter last week to "strongly recommend" that parents preview the show to determine whether it's appropriate. On Tuesday, Metro Nashville Public Schools sent an email to counselors across the district suggesting they may want to discuss the show, thoughts of suicide, bullying or other safety issues with students during classroom guidance lessons.
The show is rated TV-MA and includes graphic content warnings before two episodes, and - since the controversy has elevated - Netflix has appended additional content notices to the show. But middle schoolers are still watching - and talking.
"This definitely hit our radar hard in the last 48 hours," said Nicole Cobb, executive director of school counseling services for MNPS said.
It's spurred a lot of discussions "especially with middle school girls," Cobb said. Though some of the conversation has focused on suicide, even more of it has been about sexual abuse, Cobb said.
Schools can't control whether or not a teenager will watch it, and - to some extent - parents may not be able to either. With smartphones, iPads and the Netflix app streaming, if kids want to watch it they probably will. And if they haven't or aren't allowed to, there's a good chance their friends are talking about the series in detail.
Teens want to watch so they can talk with their friends
That's why 13-year-old Xander Grummon asked to continue watching the show after his mom, Sharling, received an email from Brentwood Middle School warning about the "13 Reasons Why" content.
He had watched three or four episodes - early shows in the series that did not have a lot of graphic detail. He described the series to his mom as being about "a whiny teenage girl who blames everybody for their problems and uses outdated technology."
His friends, however, were talking about some of the heavier issues in the show. Last year, the parent of one of Xander's friends committed suicide. Xander also told his mom that there are kids at school that talk about cutting - a form of self-harm that includes deliberately injuring the surface of one's body with a sharp object, often to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.
So, Sharling Grummon faced the decision of whether or not to let her child watch the remaining episodes.
"I've always been the type of mother who wants to prepare him and not totally shelter him from things related to social media so that he becomes a responsible user," Grummon said. "But this one's been tough."
After some thought and discussion with Xander's dad, she has decided she will watch the show with Xander.
"You have got to talk about these things," Grummon said. "You can't just keep them bottled up. But, at the same time, you don't want to introduce the topics of rape and suicide.
"Unfortunately it's out there. The best way you can protect your child is talk about these things and not shut it down."
Don't be afraid to talk about it
Conversations are really important, but watching such graphic displays shouldn't be needed to start the discussion, said Dr. Margaret Benningfield, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University.
Suicide is complex, Benningfield said. It's not accurate, in most cases, to look back and say it happened because of this or that reason. It is true that kids who experience bullying or feel "different" are at higher risk. And graphic depictions of rape and suicide trigger unhealthy responses for those who have experienced it.
Benningfield encourages parents to be as informed as they can be. She thinks parents should read about the series, and, at the risk of promoting increased viewership, watch it.
For children 12 and younger, she believes it is definitely OK for parents to say, 'Nope, you are not watching this."
But as kids get older, parents are less able to control their actions.
"So, rather than forbid the activity, open up a conversation about it," she said. "Ask them why they are curious about it. Why they want to watch it. Tell them, 'I am concerned because, ... but I want to hear what it stirs up for you."
And, most important, Benningfield said, parents should know the warning signs of suicidal behavior, which include irritability, isolation, recklessness and extreme mood swings.
"For parents, the biggest challenge is sorting out what behaviors are related to typical teenage funks and what are areas for concern," she said. "I would encourage parents to trust themselves when they have a bad feeling and seek out a professional.
"And I would hope to see this opening the conversation up rather than shutting it down, and making the space for kids to talk about their experiences."
For its part, Netflix has promised to strengthen "the messaging and resource language ... that contain graphic subject matter." The homepage of the show's website,13ReasonsWhy.info, also now displays information for the Crisis Text Line and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
After learning more about the series, Duncan has decided to ask her daughter not to watch any more of the show.
"There needs to be something that opens the door for them," Duncan said. "I don't know that this is the right thing to open that door."
Reach Jessica Bliss at 615-259-8253 and firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find her on Twitter @jlbliss.
A CHANCE TO TALK
Catholic Charities of Tennessee will host a conversation on "13 Reasons Why," on May 23. Catholic Charities counselors from both the Individual and Family Counseling Program and the School Counseling program will help lead the conversation. Separate parent and student discussions will be offered.
WHEN: 6:30-7:30 p.m., May 23
WHERE: Cafeteria of St. Edward School (190 Thompson Lane, Nashville)
RSVP: Reservations are requested. Email email@example.com or call 615-760-4428