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The consensus on '13 Reasons Why': Netflix show 'not completely aligned with reality'

On average, one person dies by suicide every three days in North Dakota, making suicide the ninth leading cause of death. Thinkstock / Special to the Forum. 1 / 3
"13 Reasons Why" depicts how bullying intensifies through the "norm" of 21st -century communication. Courtesy of Netflix/ Special to the Forum. 2 / 3
Clay Jensen deals with his friend's suicide as he listens to the tapes she left behind in "13 Reasons Why." Courtesy of Netflix /Special the Forum. 3 / 3

FARGO — When it comes to addressing the topic teen suicide, "13 Reasons Why" is not enough for most local students and mental health advocates. This Netflix series untangles the threads that lead to 17-year-old Hannah Baker's suicide from the eyes of former love interest Clay Jensen.

The series based on Jay Asher's novel is criticized for its lack of tact when dealing with the delicate and dense issues of bullying, sexual assault and depression.

In response to the series' popularity, local mental health advocates and schools use this time to broach difficult subjects.

"When I've been talking with classrooms recently, many of the times the kids 'get it' — that '13 Reasons Why' is dramatized and it's just a show," says Ashley Ladbury Hrichena, training and education coordinator at FirstLink, a local 24-hour crisis hotline that receives calls from across North Dakota as well as Clay County in Minnesota.

A difficult discussion

Local schools and mental health advocates use this moment in pop culture to consider issues like bullying, depression and teen suicide in a safe environment.

Eastwood Elementary in West Fargo sent a note advising parents of fifth-graders to not allow their children to watch the series, although both the West Fargo and Fargo school districts have not provided any official recommendations overall to parents.

Like other schools across the nation, the West Fargo School District provided a four-page guidance document by the National Association of School Psychologists pertaining especially to "13 Reasons Why." Heather Konschak, a community relations coordinator at West Fargo Public Schools, encourages parents to speak with their children about the series.

"Every child processes it differently and has past experiences or history that would affect how they absorb that information and react to it," Konschak says.

As part of its outreach program, FirstLink visits area classrooms to speak about crisis management, including recognizing the signs that someone may be at risk for suicide.

Bailee Gass, a 21-year-old North Dakota State University student and Crisis Text Line volunteer, saw a similar reaction as she logged hours after the series premiered. Crisis Text Line is a national texting-only lifeline that receives messages from across the United States. As a crisis counselor, Gass's job is to de-escalate situations by building a rapport and creating a plan to stay safe.

When a person texts the hotline, the message is sent to "the queue." Weeks after the March 31 premiere of "13 Reasons," Gass and her fellow counselors were astonished at the lifeline's increase in traffic.

"For moments at a time, there would be an overwhelming amount of conversations in the queue compared to the crisis counselors available to help," Gass says.

According to Hrichena, the suicide rate increases each year during the spring and summer months. FirstLink experienced a 16 percent increase in 2017 nationally compared to previous years. Some have blamed the uptick on Asher's book and its recent living room debut. Although, according to a Columbia University report, there is strong evidence to show that "suicide is contagious," the theory has not been proven.

Gass says every conversation is different, but there were some common threads among those who reached out after watching "13 Reasons Why." Many who had struggled with suicidal thoughts were triggered by the show's graphic conclusion, which shows Hannah Baker's suicide in detail.

"The story is powerful, but texters often glamorize some of the choices made (by Hannah) and express feelings of revenge and anger towards those they feel are at blame," Gass says.

Gass herself began watching the series but stopped when she noticed a change in her mood.

"After being a year and a half self-harm-free with the thought never crossing my mind, the show had the power to make me think about self-harm and cutting," Gass says. " '13 Reasons Why' has the power to raise awareness and end the stigma around mental health, but also causes quite a bit of controversy which isn't exactly the way I would like others to learn about mental illness."

Although Netflix has promised to add additional trigger warnings, local mental health advocates continue to advise others to proceed with caution if a parent or teenager decides to view the series.

"In general, people should keep in mind that '13 Reasons Why' is not completely aligned with reality," Hrichena says.

Resources for help

• FirstLink: (701) 235-7335

• American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (North Dakota chapter): (701) 371-1194

• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

• Trevor Lifeline: (866) 488-7386

• Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860 (U.S.), 1-877-330-6366 (Canada)

• Crisis Text Line: Text "741741"

April Knutson

April Knutson is lifestyle-focused journalist producing stories for the Forum News Service about people, health, community issues, and services. She earned her degree in both English Literature and Mass Communications. After working as a digital marketing specialist and web design consultant for a few years, she joined Forum Communications in 2015. She grew up on a farm near Volga, S.D. Follow her on Twitter @april_knutson.

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