EDITORIAL: Let's be open about suicide

York Dispatch
  • A popular Netflix series has some educators worried it glorifies suicide.
  • "13 Reasons Why" contains graphic content some say will encourage vulnerable kids.
  • These concerns are valid. Yet, talking about suicide openly can also save a life.

A recent Netflix adaptation of a book about teen suicide has illuminated the importance of having a conversation about suicide — even if that is a difficult thing to do.

Gage Denny and his father, Charles Denny Jr., talk about Gage's suicide attempt, Sunday, June 18, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

“13 Reasons Why” is based on a teen novel about students who try to solve a puzzle left by a classmate who died by suicide. The show has graphic depictions of self-harm and bullying, and, after some public criticism, Netflix recently added warning messages at the beginning of each episode.

Local teen advocates are necessarily concerned. Southern York County School District Superintendent Sandra Lemmon sent an email to district families asking that they be aware of the show and its potential to “lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.”

In her email, Lemmon quoted part of a resource document from the National Association of School Psychologists.

Carla Christopher, equity coordinator at York County School of Technology, said students might take the series in the wrong way as a glamorization of suicide. Some students, especially those who are more emotionally vulnerable, might “obsess” about things they watch to the point of trying it, Christopher said. “Like cigarettes and drugs. Then suicide.”

York County educators warn about '13 Reasons Why'

Christopher also made the point that Netflix should take some responsibility for its choice to offer the show and perhaps include information about resources for those who feel desperate, depressed, alone and suicidal.

In a Facebook comment on the Dispatch story by reporter Junior Gonzalez, Cindy Richard, founder of Suicide Prevention of York, agreed that some of the graphic content in the show is unnecessary. But she also supported the idea of the show promoting communication about suicide.

“Talking about suicide does not glorify, cause, or make suicide sexy, it allows people to reach out for help, understand that they are not alone, and hopefully get the help that they need,” Richard wrote. “Talking about suicide and educating ourselves with the warning signs and our local mental health services can save a life!”

We also spoke with Gage Denny, a York County School of Technology student who attempted suicide in 2015. He said he believes the show is beneficial. He spoke to his classmates about his attempt and thinks bringing the subject to everyone’s attention is one benefit of the Netflix show, even if the company’s goal is to profit from the show.

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It’s understandable that adults would want to ensure that such a show doesn’t spur suicidal ideation by glamorizing a decision that can’t be undone. And being judicious about what our children watch is good parenting.

We know our children — and if it’s something that would make them more vulnerable, it’s our right to choose what they can and cannot see.

It’s similarly commendable for school administrators to bring this issue to parents’ attention, so they can make those decisions with good information to guide them.

Once those issues are addressed, the existence of such a show is a good opportunity to start a conversation with kids and let them know that feelings of despair can be overwhelming but there is help available — and they shouldn’t feel ashamed or otherwise less than anyone for needing to address mental health issues.

If you or someone you know needs assistance, call Suicide Prevention of York at 717-227-0048 for an assessment — or even just to talk. Support groups are also available for people who have lost someone to suicide.