’13 Reasons Why’ prompts conversation in Winnipeg schools on suicide prevention

13 Reasons Why has created a debate among suicide prevention groups, saying the show could have a dangerous message for vulnerable youth.
13 Reasons Why has created a debate among suicide prevention groups, saying the show could have a dangerous message for vulnerable youth. Credit: IMDB

In the wake of the new Netflix series 13 Reasons WhyWinnipeg schools are prepping their staff on how to talk with students about suicide prevention.

The show has sparked controversy among suicide prevention advocacy groups, which expressed concerns the series could increase the instances of suicide among youth.

13 Reasons Why tells the story – in graphic detail – about 17-year-old Hannah Baker, a student, who takes her life and leaves behind a series of taped cassettes created for those she blames for her downward spiral. Netflix rates the show for mature audiences and notes it may not be suitable for children under 17.

WATCH: Show trailer: 13 Reasons Why

Show trailer: 13 Reasons Why
Show trailer: 13 Reasons Why

“Just like anything on social media or television, we are starting to hear more about the show in our schools,” Jón Olafson, a student services consultant with Winnipeg School Division (WSD) said.

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“We’re hearing from counsellors and principals that it’s something youth are talking about. The concern is that the show just looks at the risk factors surrounding suicide, but does not look at the protective factors.”

READ MORE: ’13 Reasons Why’ sparks concerns among mental health advocates: ‘Suicide is not glamorous’

Olafson said all the counsellors and psychologists at the WSD all have mandatory suicide prevention training.

Staff have also been equipped with a ‘13 Reasons Why Talking Points’ sheet, that creates a guide on how to have conversations about the show.

“Our staff are already trained on the subject, but this one pager has helped us deliver that message.”

Contagion effect

Dr. Laurence Katz is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Manitoba and with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. He said the show could have a dangerous message for vulnerable teenagers.

“The concern is that children who are vulnerable and have suicidal thoughts, can watch a show like this, and it can trigger suicidal thoughts… which is profoundly dangerous,” he said.

The problem is when kids identify with a character in a show who chooses suicide as a solution, Katz said.

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“Now they idealize suicide and see it as dealing with a problem.”

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RELATED: Major depression is on the rise in youth, especially teenage girls: study

He said this is called the “contagion effect.” For example after a celebrity suicide, there is an increased risk of suicide among youth, he said.

Up to 20 per cent — or one in five — of young Canadians are affected by a mental illness or disorder. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse are most typical for this age group.

Katz said the key message to get out to teenagers is there is help.

“You don’t have to die to solve your problems,” he said,

Where to get help

There are a variety of local and national resources for people to reach out to who may have suicidal thoughts, Katz said. There are school resources, mobile crisis teams and even hospital emergency rooms.

RELATED: What happens when mental health education isn’t taught to kids

Next week the WSD is hosting a series of events for mental health awareness for staff, students and parents.

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Other resources include:

Klinic Crisis Support

Everyone Matters Manitoba

Reason to Live

Kids Help Phone 

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention

Centre for Suicide Prevention

Calm In The Storm

With files from Carmen Chai