Even before the popular Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” sparked a national conversation about teen suicide Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts school officials worried about an increase of suicidal students.
“I, unfortunately, have had a lot of experience with suicidal children,” said Jennifer Palermo, a CAPA social worker. “We certainly have a protocol in place to immediately assess students for safety, inform parents and connect them to outside resources.”
School districts across Western Pennsylvania take the frenzied buzz surrounding the hit series seriously. Many are concerned that the show irresponsibly glorifies teen suicide and doesn’t properly address the depths of mental illness.
Based on a novel by Jay Asher and produced by Selena Gomez, the 13-part series tells the fictional story of 17-year-old Hannah Baker, who kills herself in graphic fashion by cutting her wrists in her home bathtub. She leaves audiotapes for 13 people, including a school counselor, who she says contributed to her suicide.
Palermo has not watched the series but said several students have told her the counselor’s character appears to be aloof and uncaring.
“They told me, ‘Mrs. Palermo, you will not like the depiction of this counselor in this show,’” she said. “That depiction is fictional and goes against what any counselor is trained to do. I worry it could send a message that reaching out to a school support person is not a viable option.”
John O’Connell, director of student support for Pittsburgh Public Schools, addressed the show with district counselors and social workers in an email this week. The email contained instructions from Pennsylvania Youth Suicide Prevention Initiative.
“It is with near certainty that many of your students will be talking about this series in school,” the email said. “Being armed with appropriate and positive messages will help students struggling with their own emotional response to this series to put the dramatized content into realistic perspective and afford you with new opportunities for engaging these youth and providing necessary support and resources.”
Chartiers Valley School District Superintendent Brian White on Thursday emailed parents to boost awareness of the show. He included information provided by the National Association of School Psychologists, said district spokeswoman Kara Droney.
“We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series,” the National Association of School Psychologists says on its website. “Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.”
In Belle Vernon, high school staff have also been discussing the show this week.
Belle Vernon Area High School Principal John Grice said he worries about students’ exposure to it, primarily because it does not offer any real resources for help if they or someone they know face feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide.
“If you have a poor self image already and you don’t have an adult to process this with, you really are at a loss,” Grice said.
Barbara Marin, superintendent of the Hempfield Area School District, said the district plans to send a letter to parents that will include a list of resources on suicide prevention.
“We are aware and we are working on it and it is a concern, because students at this age, they react when they see things like this. And we want to caution parents and make them aware,” Marin said.
Johannah Vanatta, assistant superintendent for secondary education in the North Hills School District, said she waffled on whether to send letters home to parents about the series.
In the end, she chose not to raise alarms because she’s confident with suicide prevention in place throughout the district.
TV series or no TV series, the New Kensington-Arnold School district officials said they regularly deal with crisis management for all varieties of student behaviors and outcomes.
“This series isn’t going to make us change the way we treat kids because we already have kids as our number-one priority,” Superintendent John Pallone said.
New Kensington-Arnold School District has student assistance programs with staff and students both intervening in crisis situations.
“It doesn’t have to be suicide,” Pallone said. “It could be just kids having a bad day.”
He said district teachers and staff will receive more education through a suicide prevention program before the new school year.
Penn Hills High School counselor Amy Alexander said a few students have asked her about the show. Her daughters, 27 and 16, have also seen it.
“I’m going to have to watch it,” she said. “A lot of time adolescents don’t think very far into the future and don’t realize the depth of committing suicide and the aftermath. It’s almost as if they don’t believe they wont be here anymore.”
Staff writer Mary Ann Thomas contributed. Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @bencschmitt.