Catholic leaders urge extreme caution for new Netflix series

Catholic News Agency

Based on the 2007 young adult novel by the same name, “13 Reasons Why” follows the story of Hannah Baker, a troubled 17 year old who took her own life.

But instead of leaving the typical note, Hannah leaves 13 cassette tapes, explaining the 13 reasons why she took her life – and each of these “reasons” is a person, who either did something to Hannah, or didn’t do enough, according to her.

The creators of the Netflix original series insisted in a follow-up video that 13 Reasons was meant to be helpful – to bring up important conversations about serious topics like suicide, bullying and assault, and to get viewers talking about solutions to suicidal thoughts.

However, suicide prevention groups and youth leaders have raised concerns because the show is particularly popular among a teenage audience, and teenagers are a vulnerable population.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the CDC. Studies show that publicized suicides may also trigger a ripple effect of additional suicides within communities.

The show has also faced backlash from mental health experts, who say it fails to follow several of the “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide,” a list of guidelines for media outlets developed by suicide prevention experts and journalists. Experts advise against sensational headlines or describing a suicide in graphic detail, which studies have shown can lead to suicide contagion, or “copycat” suicides.

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a U.S. non-profit suicide prevention group, has also said that the show may do “more harm than good.”

Life Teen, an international youth ministry program, released a video and a written message to young people, warning them of possible triggers in the show and of the inadequate ways it addresses suicide and mental health.

In her message to young people before they watch the show, Life Teen’s Leah Murphy warned against the way the show portrays Hannah’s suicide as simply the fault of those around her.

“Nowhere in the series is mental illness explicitly discussed or dealt with and the audience is left having been told that the people around Hannah Baker are responsible for her death because of their actions or lack thereof,” she wrote.

“While bullying, not saying anything when you see depressive or suicidal signs, and sexual assault are serious issues and can drive people to suicide, the reality is that suicide is rarely something avoided by good sentiments alone. It’s been reported that 90% of all suicides are committed by people who experience diagnosable mental illnesses. The vast majority of suicides can be traced to actual health issues, not just bullying or traumatic events. These health issues, actual, mental illnesses require a lot more than the presence of a good friend or the absence of any serious issues or struggles – they require serious, professional help.”

The fact that these aren’t addressed in any straightforward manner in the series is a problem, Murphy said, because Hannah ends up being portrayed as a kind of “heroic martyr” who leaves a lesson and a legacy behind.

Murphy urged anyone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts to reach out and seek help.

Someone who commits suicide “doesn’t become a hero, gain control, and acquire any power by identifying the people around them as reasons for their suicide,” Murphy wrote.

“Suicide will always be incredibly hurtful to countless individuals, but most tragically hurtful to the person who takes his or her own life – a life that was mean to continue, that was full of meaning, purpose, and infinite worth.”

Chelsea Voboril, the director of religious education at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Smithville, Missouri, told CNA that she watched the show and addressed it with her youth group. She was troubled that most of her teens thought the 13 reasons Hannah gave were legitimate reasons to end her life.

Voboril said they were able to discuss how Hannah never approached her parents or a doctor or psychologist about the loneliness and hurt she was experiencing. Voboril was also able to discuss mental health and culpability for sins with her youth group, who asked if everyone who commits suicide goes to hell.

When watching these kinds of shows, Voboril said she tries to take the approach of finding the “wheat in the weeds” or finding the good among the bad – something she’s borrowed from Catholic speaker Christopher West.

The show attempted to have a moral compass, Voboril said, and its “wheat” includes good messages: “Rape is wrong, suicide causes pain, everybody is bearing a cross,” she noted.

“But the weeds are dangerous. And subtle. Sex outside of marriage, turning to substance abuse, free will being limited by others actions or circumstances, let alone the huge issue around how to talk about suicide in a safe yet poignant manner.”

At the end of the discussion, Voboril said she begged her students to watch it with a parent or other adult, if they were going to continue watching.

But “(for) persons whose consciences may not be well formed or who can be triggered by any of the big issues, I would hope that they avoid it.”

Owen Stockden, a spokesman for Living Works, which specializes in suicide intervention trainings, told CNA that one of his biggest concerns with “13 Reasons” was the portrayal of inadequate and unhelpful responses from the adults in the show, particularly the school counselor and teachers.

“In the show, Hannah’s guidance counsellor has a very ineffective response to her thoughts of suicide,” Stockden told CNA.

“As an organization, we train many guidance counsellors and teachers around the world to respond compassionately and effectively to thoughts of suicide. There is always more to be done, and a recent study…suggests that schools would benefit from increased suicide intervention training for staff, but in the vast majority of cases, teachers and counsellors are alert and sensitive to the needs of their students,” he said.

“It would be tragic if 13 Reasons Why led young people to believe that their concerns would be ignored if they approached a responsible adult.”

Having a popular show discussing the issue of suicide provides the potential for helpful conversations and the addressing of important issues, “but only if it is discussed in a thoughtful and responsible way,” Stockden added.

For Catholic screenwriter and associate professor Barbara Nicolosi, another issue with the show is that none of the characters have a sense of or ever mention a transcendent or loving God, something that she says her own students lack.

“The show wants to attribute all the problems of youth to social media and bullying, but refuses to consider that those things are just symptoms themselves.  The loss of faith, the (loss of the) conviction of a loving personal God, the loss of a sense of eternity, all of these things make suicide a logical response to suffering. Our kids are not dumb,” she told CNA.

Nicolosi said she saw the value in the anti-bullying messages of the show, but she also worries it could lend power to suicide.

“…I am worried that the character of Hannah does seem to have some power in wreaking revenge on her persecutors through her suicide. In the end, I think the show is close to a wash in terms of whether it will do good or harm,” she said.

Dr. Jim Langley, a Catholic psychologist with St. Raphael Counseling in Denver, has read the book and seen several episodes of “13 Reasons Why.”

Because of the mature content on several levels – language, sexuality, topics of suicide and rape – he said he would be hesitant to recommend either the show or the book to anyone other than mentally healthy adults.

He also said that there were several things that the story gets right – namely, that people you may not expect in your life could be at risk for suicide, and the devastating impact suicide can have on the people in your life.

However, where the story goes wrong is that it tends to romanticize the idea of suicide and fails to adequately address the impact mental health played in Hannah’s decision to end her life.

Dr. Langley said he also worried that the show went too far in suggesting that the people in Hannah’s life were at fault for her suicide. Bullying, rape and assault are terrible things to have happen to someone, and there is some benefit to showing that your actions “can harm and influence other people.”

“To some degree we all have responsibility to other people, but in some ways the show goes too far, and makes it sound like we have responsibility for the other person. We’re responsible to the people in our lives, to treat them well. But the people who hurt (Hannah) were not responsible for her choosing to commit suicide.”

“Most people who commit suicide – almost everyone has a severe mental health problem. And the show does not portray this girl as having severe mental health problems in the way that somebody who is contemplating suicide almost always has,” he said.

Warning signs for suicide include severe, ongoing depression and social isolation. A suicidal person may mention something about wanting to end their life, or start giving away their belongings as sentimental gifts. Another warning sign includes a deeply depressed person who is all of a sudden very happy, brought about by a sudden sense of freedom if they have decided on suicide.

The show’s ultimate message is that the solution to teen suicide is that everyone needs to treat the people in their lives better, which is a positive message but does not go far enough in addressing mental health issues, Dr. Langley said.

One of the most important things adults can do, Dr. Langley said, it to talk to the children in their lives about this show and about suicide and other issues.

“I think that especially with teenagers, they are exposed to so much in today’s culture, that it’s our job as parents and educators about those things and to provide real, accurate information and to provide them with the truth,” he said.

Often adults can worry that they will over-expose their children to heavy issues by having these conversations, but for the most part, the internet and social media and the culture at large have already done that, Dr. Langley noted.

“So as parents and educators, we’re not overexposing them by talking about the issues, we’re going to help them process it and discern the truth in it. And I think it is really valuable to talk with teenagers about mental health issues.”

One thing that was “starkly missing” from the book and the T.V. show, Dr. Langley said, was Hannah’s parents, who seemed loving but at the same time were largely unaware of Hannah’s experiences at school and her interior experiences.

“So it’s so important for parents to play a really active role in their kids’ lives, even though a teenager’s number one priority is to individuate from mom and dad, which is healthy, you still have to be involved and talk with them and let them know that you care and that you’re invested in them. Don’t be those absent parents that Hannah’s parents appeared to be in the show.”

If you think you or a friend is struggling with suicidal thoughts, ask for help from someone you can trust and/or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (available 24 hours everyday). For Catholic counseling, contact your local priest, diocese or your local branch of Catholic Charities.

COMING UP: Not your “this-could-be-for-anyone” Christmas gift guide

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

With Christmas rapidly approaching, many of us run into the problem of finding great and unique gifts for our friends and relatives. For this reason, we have come up with a gift guide that can make your Christmas shopping a little more fun.

For your friend who enjoys “Naptio Divina”

We all know that sleeping during adoration or prayer isn’t all that bad: you rest with Jesus, right? Well, we thought this quality would be worth honoring with this shirt from Elly and Grace that you can gift your “Jesus-took-naps” friend. The cozy baseball shirt is perfect for any man or woman who enjoys resting with Jesus. Visit EllyandGrace.com for more information.

It is great to nap with Jesus; but… it is also good to pray. Therefore, we have included Fr. Larry Richard’s “No Bible, No Breakfast! No Bible, No Bed!” Scripture Calendar, in case your friend is tempted to nap with Jesus every time, instead of talking with him. You can find this calendar on CatholicCompany.com and help your friend remain faithful to praying without napping.

For your friend who evangelizes while they drive

Is your friend’s driving accompanied by countless Rosaries and acts of contrition? We have the perfect gift! The Catholic Company provides numerous car accessories for the fast evangelizers. It reminds them to wait for their guardian angels on the road in their works of mercy. On the Catholic Company inventory, you can also find sacred images and pins, such as the visor clip for any parent who is worried about their children’s driving habits.

For your friend who fights for a cause

Religious art, yards, a great cause: everyone wins with one. Angel Haus is a Denver-based nonprofit that provides employment for the disabled by creating religious art, especially for yards. The founder is the newly-ordained Deacon David Arling, who has been operating it since its initiation five years ago. They have now sold over 300 Christmas Display boards and San Damiano Cross images. The family business has encountered much support from their pastor, Father Michael Carvill at Nativity of Our Lord Church. Nonetheless, they need your support to continue with this project. To purchase an item for your friend and help this great cause, email Arling at djarling2011@hotmail.com.

For your friend who is a lost cause

Okay, okay, no person is a lost cause; but we all know someone who is pretty close to being one. As soon as you think they’ve finally gotten it, an off-the-cuff comment smashes all your hopes. Hold fast and do not despair, St. Jude is here to help! This 3 ½” tall St. Jude wooden peg from Etsy.com will make sure that the patron saint of lost causes is constantly at work for your friend. Etsy provides a wide variety of religious hand-painted figures from Whymsical Lotus that range from the Sacred Heart to your favorite saints, such as St. Therese, St. Patrick, and Our Lady of Guadalupe. These charmingly detailed and delightful dolls make a unique gift for those friends who need a special intercessor.

For your little friend

Running out of ideas to gift your child, godchild, or short friend? The search is over. Faithful Findz from Etsy.com makes great replicas of saints’ attires. Take, for instance, the “Saint John Paul II the Great” costume, handmade out of cotton poly fabric (Hawaiian Pope mobile not for sale: sad, I know; but a miter and red cape can be purchased separately). Some of their popular costumes include the habits of Mother Teresa and Padre Pio (gloves included). Even more, the maker requests the person’s waist measurement to ensure the best fit. When in doubt, you won’t lose with the saints, and neither will your little friends.

For your priestly friend

He already has all sorts of things, what could he possibly want? Rosaries, religious art, and other religious accessories are probably some of the most common gifts for priests (or priestly friends). Nonetheless, we can assure you that very few have a custom-made priest bobblehead of themselves. It makes a great gift! All you have to do is send a couple pictures of your favorite priest to MyCustomBobblehead.com. Doesn’t sound like the best idea? Look at it this way: it is a way for your priest to remember and embrace his obedience to the teachings of the Catholic Church, as his bobblehead will constantly nod to God’s will and shake his head to refuse all sinful things. Plus, you’ll get a discount if you mention you saw this in the Denver Catholic.

For your friend who never gave up on comics

Why would anyone give up on comic books when you have great initiatives like The Ultimate Catholic Comic Book? A group of Catholic cartoonists joined forces to bring about this entertaining, clever, humorous, and enriching book for all ages. Although many of the parodies and puns may well go over children’s heads, the comics contain messages that remain true to Catholic Doctrine. You can buy it and check out the sample digital copy at CatholicComicBook.com.