Why DPS Sent Warning About Netflix Suicide Show 13 Reasons Why

Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker, the protagonist of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.
Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker, the protagonist of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Netflix via YouTube
Denver Public Schools has sent a letter to parents about 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix series about a high school student who leaves behind audio recordings that explain her reasons for committing suicide. The district's decision was based in part on a subject of the show's final tape, a school counselor who essentially brushes off the student's revelation that she's been raped. Shortly thereafter, the student takes her own life.

"We really want both our students and our families to know that we have trusted adults in our schools" to whom potentially suicidal students can turn, says Katherine Plog Martinez, executive director of Whole Child Supports for DPS. "Students can and should seek our support in their schools, whether it's for their own struggles or if they have friends they know who are dealing with it."

The text of the letter is on view below.

The thirteen-episode first season of 13 Reasons Why, which is reportedly on the cusp of being renewed for a second edition, focuses on a high-schooler named Clay Jensen (portrayed by Dylan Minnette). The action begins with him finding a box on his porch containing seven double-sided cassettes recorded by Hannah (Katherine Langford), a classmate who'd committed suicide two weeks earlier. Each side of a tape pertains to a different person, with Hannah explaining how that individual contributed to her fateful choice. She leaves instructions for the cassettes to be passed from person to person in the style of a chain letter — and if the chain is broken, she's made arrangements for a separate set of recordings to be made public, thereby allowing the whole world to learn what the thirteen recipients have done.

The drama of the situation leads up to Hannah's conversation with school counselor Kevin Porter (Derek Luke), who reacts to her horrific story of rape by suggesting that no one will believe her and telling her she'd be better off putting the whole thing behind her. Instead, Hannah, who'd surreptitiously recorded Porter's dismissal, slits her wrists while taking a bath and bleeds to death.

Denver Public Schools has been familiar with this material for the better part of a decade, Martinez says: "13 Reasons Why first came on our radar in 2007, when it was published as a book [author Jay Asher's version is known as Thirteen Reasons Why]. And while it wasn't as intense, and there wasn't this level of awareness, we had conversations with our psychologists and social workers and nurses and counselors about it, just as we are now."

Such discussions are even more vital today, in Martinez's view, given that the Netflix series has proven to have a much wider reach than the book. She adds that "one of our concerns about the show is that it depicts suicidal ideation without conversation about mental-health concerns, which we know are connected to 90 percent of teen suicides. But I think of even greater concern than that is the series doesn't show youth connecting with adults in a positive manner, including the scenario that depicts the school counselor as not being helpful."

There's also the question of whether or not the program glamorizes or romanticizes suicide. Martinez was still working her way through the series when she spoke with Westword, but based on her viewings up until that time, she feels that "it comes close to it. We know that in teens, there's a risk of contagion with suicide, so we think it's very important to talk about it — not just about it happening, but to talk about it in a way that really helps students think about how they act and respond in those situations."

The subject is at the center of a DPS curriculum dubbed Signs of Suicide, or SOS, "which we implement universally in schools from sixth through ninth grade," Martinez goes on. "We talk with our students about identifying warning signs of depression and thoughts of suicide."

click to enlarge Dylan Minnette as Clay Jensen in 13 Reasons Why. - NETFLIX VIA YOUTUBE
Dylan Minnette as Clay Jensen in 13 Reasons Why.
Netflix via YouTube
DPS isn't the only agency worried about the potential impact of 13 Reasons Why. "Other districts in the metro area and across the state are having conversations about it," Martinez confirms. "And while we're thinking about the approach for our own district, we're very much in alignment with the recommendations and support of other organizations as well." The letter provides contact information for numerous agencies, including the Colorado Crisis and Support Line, the National Suicide Hotline and the Trevor Project Hotline for Suicide Prevention; the latter's focus is LGBTQ youth.

Martinez isn't wholly negative toward the program. "We believe the show brings up the importance of talking about suicidal ideation in youth," she says, "and we feel that it is really important that we have those conversations. That's why we're connecting with teachers to remind them about the warning signs of depression and how to connect with our mental-health team, and we're reaching out to parents with the same message — and sending home resources to support them in having these conversations."

Here's the text from the aforementioned letter.

Denver Public Schools letter to parents about 13 Reasons Why

I am writing to inform you about a new Netflix series titled 13 Reasons Why and its possible impact on our students. 13 Reasons Why is gaining popularity, and we have concerns that the series may increase thoughts of suicide among students.

The show is based on a novel and the story of a 17-year-old girl who takes her own life. She leaves behind 13 recordings explaining the reasons why she chose to commit suicide. While the show brings up the importance to talk about suicidal thoughts, it portrays situations where youth are dealing with serious issues, from bullying to sexual assault, without getting support from adults.

Denver Public Schools teaches the Signs of Suicide (SOS) curriculum in sixth and ninth grade across the district. The SOS curriculum focuses on supporting students to identify warning signs of depression or thoughts of suicide and make a report to a trusted adult for support. Our school psychologist, school nurses, social workers and counselors are trained in suicide prevention and supports and, unlike some of the adults in 13 Reasons Why, take all reports seriously.

You may wish to discuss the series, or thoughts of suicide, with your student. Talk to your student about what they can do if they have a friend that is expressing thoughts about hurting themselves. As we discuss in the SOS curriculum, teach your student to acknowledge if they have a problem, be caring and tell an adult. Remind your student that there is help available if they ever feel sad or depressed. Be sure your student has the hotline numbers listed below.

Please consider the age and developmental stage of your student before allowing them to watch the show. We do not recommended that students with a history of suicidal thoughts, depression or mental health concerns watch 13 Reasons Why. If you do allow your child to watch this series, we recommend you watch it with them and discuss it afterwards.

If your student has warning signs of depression or suicide, don’t be afraid to ask if they have thought about suicide. Raising the issue of suicide does not increase the risk. Instead, it decreases the risk by providing an opportunity for help.

If your child is in need of assistance, please reach out to your school mental health staff.

Helpful Resources

Colorado Crisis and Support Line at 844-493-8255, or Text TALK to 38255

National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255 Safe2Tell at 877-542-7233

Trevor Project Hotline for Suicide Prevention for LGBTQ youth 866-488-7386

Talking Points for Parents:

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts