Earlier this week, Eudora schools superintendent Steve Splichal sent a message — through email, Facebook and the Eudora schools website — to employees and school parents, warning adults about a Netflix series that has raised controversy for its depiction of suicide and mental illness.
“Suicide prevention experts are urgently concerned about the risks created with a sensationalized and misleading story about youth suicide,” Splichal wrote, echoing worries of educators and mental health professionals across the country who have spoken out about Netflix’s critically acclaimed yet controversial “13 Reasons Why.”
“If your child is not watching the show, they likely know someone who is,” Splichal warned, urging parents to monitor their children’s media consumption, maintain open lines of communication, and reach out to school employees when worries arise.
The series in question, about a teenage girl’s suicide and the messages she leaves behind explaining why she cut her life short, is the focus — among other topics — of the “Mental Wellness in the News” panel discussions slated for May in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month. Hosted by the Douglas County Suicide Prevention Coalition, the free, public events will be held May 6, at the Eudora Parks and Recreation Community Room, and May 20 at the Lawrence Public Library auditorium.
Both will feature a panel of mental health and suicide prevention specialists covering “13 Reasons Why,” bullying and tools to prevent suicide, including resources available in Douglas County.
“We know folks are hearing about this information all the time,” says Anna Barger, chair of the Douglas County Suicide Prevention Coalition. In this month’s panels, she and other organizers are hoping to seize the attention brought on by “13 Reasons Why” and other stories of teen suicide in the media. “It’s out there in the open, and let’s talk about it.”
For better or for worse, the show has created a dialogue around mental illness among young people, Barger says, though, as experts have noted, with it also carries the “potential to traumatize vulnerable viewers.”
“What are the ways in which we can help young people get the support we need from caring adults?” Barger asks. In that way, she says, “it does challenge us to look deeper at some of the those sensationalized moments and talk about the other side of it, which I think is that prevention side.”
Efforts to prevent suicide, in this case young people, should involve the community, Barger says. That’s why she and others involved want to make suicide prevention — the signs to look for, the agencies offering support — as “accessible” as possible.
Community partners participating in this month’s panel discussions include from the Headquarters Counseling Center, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Willow Domestic Violence Center, Communities in Schools of Mid-America and the Lawrence Police Department.
Barger hopes the panels will get people talking. Open, honest conversation around suicide, she says, is one path toward chipping away at the stigma of mental illness.
“Ultimately, the goal is zero suicides,” she says. “We don’t want anyone to not get the help they need, or to feel like they can’t get the help they need.”
The May 6 “Mental Wellness in the News” panel will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Eudora Parks and Recreation Community Room, 1630 Elm St. The May 20 panel will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Lawrence Public Library auditorium, 707 Vermont St.