Anchorage School District officials want parents to know that the popular Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" could potentially trigger harmful behaviors among some vulnerable youths.
With schools closed for the summer, the district emailed a letter to Anchorage parents last week about the series, encouraging them to talk to their children who have watched the show about the weighty issues it addresses, including suicide.
"They don't hide anything, and that's our biggest concern," Diane Lemon, the district's counseling coordinator, said about the Netflix series. "It's very intense. It's very graphic. And it's well done, so it pulls you in. And, just to be exposed to that over a long period of time can just dampen your spirit. It can bring anybody down."
Lemon joins a chorus of educators and mental health experts across the country who have raised alarms about "13 Reasons Why," a fictional series about a high school student named Hannah Baker who commits suicide and leaves behind cassette tapes detailing the events that led to her death. The final episode of the first season includes a graphic, prolonged scene in which Baker kills herself.
Some educators and mental health professionals say the show does more harm than good, and have warned that too many of the show's messages on suicide are inaccurate. Some say the show glamorizes teen suicide and worry it could lead to copycat behaviors.
"It's definitely an entertaining show, but I do see a lot of potential for harm," said Vivian Gonzalez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "I would be worried about kids who are thinking about suicide, watching the show."
The series, based on a best-selling young adult novel by Jay Asher, debuted in March 2017 and prompted a "whirlwind of conversations" in Anchorage schools, Lemon said.
"We had lots of students showing up in counselors' offices and talking about it," she said. "Frankly, we were really surprised about the effect."
Some students wanted to talk about concerns they had for friends, she said. Others wanted to talk about concerns they had for themselves after watching the show.
"There were kids who were triggered by this and it did put them in crisis mode," she said.
The series is rated TV-MA — for mature audiences only. It not only addresses suicide, but also other sensitive topics including sexual assault, substance abuse and bullying in, at times, graphic scenes. Netflix said in a statement to The New York Times last year that its viewers said the show helped spark important conversations.
In response to concerns, Netflix recently added a warning video to the start of each season, in addition to other advisory warnings already in place. There's also a website for the show that has the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline among other resources.
But some are still worried.
Season two of "13 Reasons Why" hit Netflix less than a week before Anchorage schools let out for the summer.
"Due to the timing of the show's release, it is helpful for families to remember the importance of good communication with their children, as many adults they would normally seek out at school are unavailable with school not in session," said the Anchorage School District's letter to parents.
Parents should know what shows their children are watching, Lemon said. The district also recommends that vulnerable students not watch "13 Reasons Why," especially those who have a history of self-harm.
"There are a lot of vulnerable youth out there," Lemon said. "They're just hanging on by their fingernails and when they see something like this, it can cause them to spiral even more."
Alaska has long struggled with a high rate of suicide.
In 2016, it had the second-highest suicide death rate in the country, after Montana, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The percentage of Alaska high school students who said they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year jumped from about 17 percent in 2007 to about 23 percent a decade later, according to results from the Alaska Youth Risk Behavior Survey, an anonymous survey conducted by the state health department. About one in every five high school students in 2017 said they had made a suicide plan in the past year, the survey results show.
The Anchorage School District said in its letter that parents shouldn't encourage their children to watch "13 Reasons Why." But if children do watch the show, parents should tell them they want to watch it with them and then talk about it, the district said.
"Don't be afraid to have those hard conversations," Lemon said. "Kids want to have them, but sometimes parents shy away from it."
A myth about suicide prevention is that talking about suicide leads to more suicides, said Eric Morrison, council assistant for Alaska's Statewide Suicide Prevention Council. It's important for parents to listen to, validate and support their kids, he said.
"If they need help, reach out and get help," he said.
Gonzalez has several concerns about "13 Reasons Why," including how the main character is memorialized after she kills herself.
"She commits suicide and now people understand her," Gonzalez said. "It absolutely gets her a lot of sympathetic attention and people appreciate her more after her death."
Gonzalez said she worries that the show romanticizes suicide. Another issue, she said, is that while it seems like the character Hannah Baker is probably clinically depressed, given all of the traumas she goes through, she doesn't display any symptoms.
"It did not depict someone who was clinically depressed," Gonzalez said. "So parents can't watch the show and say, 'Wow, let me look for warning signs of suicide.' "
The National Association of School Psychologists also says the series fails to emphasize that the presence of a treatable mental illness is common among most suicide deaths.
In its letter, the Anchorage School District says that if parents notice their children exhibiting any warning signs of suicide, they should to talk to them. They should ask if the child has ever thought about suicide or if someone is hurting them.
Warning signs can include suicidal threats, giving away prized possessions, isolating from friends and family and preoccupation with death, among others, the district says.
Young people also shouldn't binge watch "13 Reasons Why," Lemon said.
"You have to be able to step out and look up and know there's reality out there," she said.