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New Show '13 Reasons Why' Worries Mental Health Experts


Dylan Minnette, Exec. Producer Selena Gomez and Katherine Langford seen at Netflix '13 Reasons Why' Premiere at Paramount Studios on Thursday, March 30, 2017, in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Netflix/AP Images)

It is painful and difficult television to watch.

The suicide of Hannah Baker, the main character in Netflix’s popular show “13 Reasons Why,” does not come as a surprise. The series is built around the character’s death.

But knowing that it is coming does not make it any easier to watch.

The 17-year-old girl climbs into a bathtub. She is holding a sharp tool called a razor. She uses it to cut into her skin on her arm. Blood spills out quickly. She cries and struggles to breathe. Then, she is quiet and still.

“13 Reasons Why” is based on a 2007 young-adult book written by Jay Asher. It is about a high school student who kills herself and leaves behind 13 audio recordings that detail the events that led her to commit suicide. In the recordings, she describes her experiences with sexual violence, drug abuse and bullying.

The 13-part show was co-produced by American actress and singer Selena Gomez. The streaming service Netflix released the show on March 31.

Following its release, educators and mental health experts sharply criticized the show. They say it “romanticizes” suicide -- or makes it seem appealing or interesting.

Officials at some U.S. schools sent students home with letters, warning parents that the show may be harmful. They offered suggestions for how to talk about suicide. Some urged parents to watch and discuss the show with their children.

"It was supposed to be hard to watch"

The creators of “13 Reasons Why” say they do not feel the show romanticizes suicide. They say it shows suicide as “very ugly and very damaging.”

Brian Yorkey is one of the writers. He won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for the musical “Next to Normal” -- a play about mental illness. He said that “13 Reasons Why” brings up difficult issues that parents and their children should be talking about more.

"I understand it's hard to watch," Yorkey said [to the Associated Press]. "It was supposed to be hard to watch, because these things are incredibly hard to endure and we wanted to say, 'These things are happening in kids' lives. You can keep quiet about them. You can keep kids from watching shows about them. It's not going to stop them from happening in kids' lives and you should be talking about that.'"

Mental health experts, however, have described the show as “unsafe.” Phyllis Alongi is the clinical director for The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide.

Graphic details about suicide we know historically are not recommended,” she told the Associated Press. “I understand what the producers are saying but it could be really unsafe and I think we need to be a little more responsible.”

The Washington Post last week reported on the comments of a school official in the state of Florida. He said his district has experienced an increase in “at-risk” behavior since the release of the show. Such behavior includes threats of suicide or self-injury. The official said that students involved in the incidents made mention of “13 Reasons Why.”

Other countries respond to '13 Reasons Why'

The show has also created concerns around the world. Schools in some Canadian provinces have barred discussion of the show.

A doctor with Australia’s Headspace counseling services put out a statement about 13 Reasons Why. He wrote, “There is a responsibility for broadcasters to know what they are showing and the impact that certain content can have on an audience -- and a young audience in particular.”

The New Zealand government’s Office of Film and Literature Classification has barred people under 18 from watching 13 Reasons Why without their parents. The government said the show ignores the common link between suicide and mental illness.

“People often commit suicide because they are unwell, not simply because people have been cruel to them," it said.

Selena Gomez, who has talked openly about her own mental-health struggles, said she was prepared for criticism of the show.

“It’s going to come no matter what. It’s not an easy subject to talk about. But I’m very fortunate with how it’s doing,” Gomez told the Associated Press.

No debate about show's success

There is no debate that the show is popular, especially on social media. It has become the most talked-about show on Twitter in 2017. More than 2.4 million people like its Facebook page.

It also has seen success among some television critics. The Boston Globe’s Matthew Gilbert calls it “sensitive” and “surprising.” Liz Shannon Miller with IndieWire calls the performance of Katherine Langford, who plays Hannah Baker, “believable and raw.”

However, mental health experts are more concerned with how such performances might affect teenagers who watch them.

The National Association of School Psychologists published a notice on its website about the show. It offers tips for educators, parents and students. An official with the association told the Washington Post it was the first time it has ever put out a notice in response to a TV show.

Netflix to add new warnings to show

Netflix announced Monday it plans to add a warning message for viewers of 13 Reasons Why.

"There has been a tremendous amount of discussion about our series 13 Reasons Why," Netflix said in a statement. “While many of our members find the show to be a valuable driver for starting important conversation with their families, we have also heard concern from those who feel the series should carry additional advisories.”

Netflix has not said what that message will include.

I’m Caty Weaver.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

The Associated Press' Mark Kennedy reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for Learning English, with additional material from the Washington Post. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

razor - n. a tool or device with a sharp edge that is used to shave or cut hair from the face, body, or head

bully - v. to frighten, hurt, or threaten (a smaller or weaker person) : to act like a bully toward (someone)

romanticize - v. to think about or describe something as being better or more attractive or interesting than it really is

ugly - adj. very bad or unpleasant

incredibly - adv. in a way that is difficult or impossible to believe

endure - v. to experience (pain or suffering) for a long time

graphic - adj. shown or described in a very clear way — used especially to refer to things that are unpleasant or shocking

recommend - v. ​to suggest that someone do (something)​

mention - v. to talk about, write about, or refer to (something or someone) especially in a brief way

cruel - adj. used to describe people who hurt others and do not feel sorry about it

fortunate - adj. having good luck : enjoying good fortune

sensitive - adj. able to express thoughts and feelings through writing, music, dance, etc.

tips - n. advice or useful information

tremendous - adj. very large or great

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