Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why sparks controversy in and out of Urban’s halls

[The opinions expressed in this article by Urban students are not the opinion of the Urban Legend. This article discusses self-harm and suicide.]

“Welcome to your tape.”

These four words begin every monumental moment in the new Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why.” The series, adapted from the 2007 novel, “13 Reasons Why” by Jay Asher, has become one of the most controversial and most watched shows in the country. The discussion lies in the content of the 13 episode, roughly 13-hour show that follows the story of 16-year-old Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) who leaves behind 13 secret tapes after committing suicide.

Viewers are immediately greeted by Hannah’s voice as she walks through the personalized tapes, each directed at someone who she says led her to commit suicide. The viewer is thrown into the head of protagonist Clay Jensen, who listens to the tapes throughout the show and has constant flashbacks to his interactions with Hannah.

“13 Reasons Why” touches on several topics prevalent in adolescents lives, including, alcohol abuse, bullying, and sexual assault. The complexities of the show have led to a nationwide debate about suicide and how it was portrayed in the series. Several suicide prevention organizations have published resources for viewers. The JED Foundation, a suicide prevention organization, released an entire page dedicated to the show titled “What Viewers Should Consider.” It includes topics to think about before watching the show.

The JED also warned parents to “make a considered and thoughtful decision about whether or not you choose to watch the show. If you have experienced significant depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts or behaviors in the past, this show may be risky for you to watch.”

Similarly, Common Sense Media, a “nonprofit organization dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology,” created a tool for families titled 5 Conversations to Have with Your Teens After 13 Reasons Why. These included asking the teen, “Do you think 13 Reasons Why romanticizes suicide, or does it provide an important outlet and opportunities for discussion? Or both?” and “When is it important to talk about mental health, especially if you’re worried about a friend or family member? What resources are available to help both kids and adults?.”

Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia University, said, “The series is actually depicting suicide contagion, and at the same time, it’s denying the suicide contagion exists … it’s so upsetting to me on so many levels.”

Suicide contagion is defined as the “process by which exposure to the suicide or suicidal behavior of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide” by Patrick W. O’Carroll, M.D., M.P.H..

Since the show’s airing, other doctors have echoed the critique of glorification and misrepresentation of mental illnesses. “The way adults are portrayed as incompetent or clueless is a major problem in 13 Reasons Why,” said David N. Miller, the author of  “Child and Adolescent Suicidal Behavior: School-Based Prevention, Assessment, and Intervention.” Miller believed the show would lead students away from seeking critical assistance, according to a New York Times article on May 1, 2017.

However, the controversy does not stay in the doctor’s office. Many schools throughout the country have sent parents and guardians letters explaining their opinion of the series and the role of the school and administration. Many of the schools fear that the show could push some students over the edge, rather than being an incubator for conversation.

Tamalpais Union High School District sent a letter to parents on April 26, 2017, expressing their concerns.

“Our student services staff, including school counselors, school psychologists, administrators, and wellness staff, have reported that a number of students have sought support after watching the series. The graphic depictions of bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and suicide have proven to be very triggering, especially for our students who have experienced or witnessed any of these tough issues in their own lives or who are currently struggling with emotional or social challenges,” wrote Wesley Cedros, Ed.S., Senior Director of Student Services Tamalpais Union High School District.”

A private school in Marin, Marin Catholic High School, had similar experiences with students asking for support from the school. In an interview with the Urban Legend, Principal of Marin Catholic, Chris Valdez discussed the issues “13 Reasons Why” brought up for the school.

Student reactions have been mixed by the show. There are very few students whose lives have not been touched in some way by teen suicide (or suicide attempt), even if it’s a couple degrees of separation away. My feeling is that students are on pretty high alert and very sensitive to the issue,” Valdez said. When asked what he suggests to students, Valdez responded, “From what I know it really is sensational and has little prosocial value, so I recommend a quiet disregard. This is wholly unpractical I realize, but I think by sometimes managing the practical, we compromise our ideals.”

Marin Catholic did not send out a formal letter regarding the series.


“Rather than telling students what they can and cannot watch, Urban’s approach is to put our energies into having a comprehensive health program for students and to offer multiple parent education evenings so that we can help students be prepared to use their critical thinking skills when they see a program like this one.

Both Shafia Zaloom and Jennifer Epstein, Urban’s Health Education Teachers will be holding forums this week for students who want to talk about the show with the health teachers. They have also been talking about the series in their classes as well.

Urban takes teen suicide very seriously, and we will be sure to incorporate all that we know about suicide prevention into our ongoing work at the school. If students come to us with particular concerns related to a show like 13 Reasons Why, we do respond as we have in our health classes and in planned forums.”

Although Urban did not send out a formal letter to parents, guardians, or students, chatter about “13 Reasons Why” circled Urban’s halls in the weeks following its airing. While some students enjoyed it, others were disturbed.

“It’s very intimate. It brings a lot of attention to issues that teens are dealing with. I give them praise for that. I would recommend it to most of my friends, with that said, giving them a warning that it is a very some of the scenes can be triggering. That’s what makes the show so good. The images they show are hard to watch. Bringing a light that these are issues that many people deal with,” said Nick Andino (‘18).

However, this intimacy also frightened other students. Some students worried that the show glorified suicide and mental health.

“The way in which I’ve heard the show glorified suicide and mental health seemed really destructive to me, so I decided not to watch,” said Lydia Sears (‘18), who read the book but was against the show.

In order to deal with some of the issues brought up, Netflix created a 30-minute documentary called “Beyond the Reasons” to accompany the series. The short video includes the cast, producers and mental health experts discussing some of the show’s more difficult scenes.

Due to some of the backlash the show received among many great fans, one of the show’s writers, Nic Sheff, wrote an essay in Vanity Fair explaining his own connection to Hannah and his own experience with suicide.

I was struck by how relevant and even necessary a show like this was: offering hope to young people, letting them know that they are not alone—that somebody out there gets them. In 13 Reasons Why, the story of a high-school girl who takes her own life, I saw the opportunity to explore issues of cyberbullying, sexual assault, depression … And, beyond all that, I recognized the potential for the show to bravely and unflinchingly explore the realities of suicide for teens and young adults—a topic I felt very strongly about.”

Although the series has received some backlash, the Netflix Twitter account released a statement on May 9, 2017, announcing that there will be a season 2 of “13 Reasons Why.” The image attached to the post revealed that there will be no more tapes, and the season will explore “the way we raise boys up into men and the way we treat girls and women in our culture- and what we could do better in both cases.”

While the details of season 2 are unclear, the next season of “13 Reasons Why” is likely to rouse controversy.