Message of '13 Reasons Why' deeply concerns Utah mom who lost child to suicide

Thursday , April 27, 2017 - 6:25 PM

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — The Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” has created quite a stir since its March 31 release, in part because of its graphic depictions of teen bullying, rape and suicide. 

Based on the 2007 Jay Asher novel by the same name, “13 Reasons Why” portrays teen angst on steroids. Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford, is a young woman who takes her own life, but leaves behind a box of cassette tapes, where she explains her reasons for doing so. That collection lands on the porch of her classmate Clay Jensen, played by Dylan Minnette. As he listens to each recording, a heart-wrenching story unfolds through their two perspectives.

Rotten Tomatoes, a website that rates current movies, TV shows and videos, gave “13 Reasons Why” 7.3 out of 10.

But some view its content as harmful.

Huntsville resident Laura Warburton lost her own daughter, Hannah, to suicide in 2014 and recently blogged about the new series on www.livehannahshope.org. Warburton’s journey navigating such intense grief shaped her advocacy efforts for suicide prevention. In 2015, suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10 to 17. 

RELATED: Too many young lives lost to suicide; Utah ranks 5th in nation

“I feel like we'll be cleaning up after this show for a while,” Warburton blogged, describing how she spent “a good two years finding out that my Hannah's friends felt responsible and setting the record straight. Kids went to therapy because of it. IT WASN'T THEIR FAULT. For things as simple as not going to lunch with Hannah, they felt responsible.”

By phone Thursday, Warburton shared her concerns.

“The show left no hope, reinforced that kids are mean, and that you’re getting revenge if you complete suicide,” Warburton said. “And they never address mental illness. I don’t think a girl who is not mentally ill would make 13 tapes and facilitate her friends turning on one another. It was not healthy.”

Warburton also lamented the show’s failure to offer tools to prevent more attempted and completed suicides. 

“I don’t want to teach kids that they have to die to escape (bullying). We need to teach kids about resilience, to pay more attention to their own thoughts about themselves and not what others think about them,” Warburton said.

Marcy Rizzi, owner of an Ogden bookstore Booked on 25th, said a local book club requested copies of 13 Reasons Why about three months ago, before the Netflix series came out.

“I started to read some of the book but didn’t finish it and have only seen numerous commentaries when it comes to the show,” Rizzi said. But as the mother of a 15- and 16-year-old, Rizzi acknowledged finding certain things troubling. 

“Perhaps there are better means to speak about suicide,” Rizzi said. “I feel there’s a glorification aspect to it in the show and the book, and I think that’s why I gave up on the book. Glorification was taking place instead of ways to help.”

After discovering its content, Rizzi launched a conversation with her kids about “13 Reasons Why,” and found out her daughter had already watched the entire series.

“She came away with the same feeling, that it’s more of a drama, but not real,” Rizzi said.

But Rizzi said she worries about teens who are mentally or emotionally struggling and face inadequate support systems.

“As a business owner, I would prefer that we have conversations about what’s beneficial and troublesome with the book,” Rizzi said.

On its Facebook page, the Weber School District warns parents and guardians about the series and also posts several suicide prevention resources. 

“We feel it is important to provide information and resources aimed at fully informing you about this popular web-based series,” the District’s post said, quoting Brooke Fox, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who described it as a suicide revenge fantasy.

“Hannah received everything in death that she was hoping for: sympathy, deep regret, guilt, and ultimately -- love. However, what the teen brain cannot process is the fact that Hannah is dead -- permanently, and never coming back,” Fox said. “The concept of the permanence of death is not solidified for a teen at this point in development. This makes suicide seem like an actual option if this can be achieved."

Thanks to state legislative funding, a smartphone app called SafeUT now provides easy access to a crisis text and tip line where teens can anonymously contact licensed clinicians at the University of Utah’s call center at any time. The app only uses about 27 megabytes of storage.

“We can help anyone with emotional crises, bullying, relationship problems, mental health, or suicide related issues,” the SafeUT website pledges.

Download the SafeUT app for iPhones here, or for android phones here.

Reporter Anna Burleson contributed to this story.

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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