A Spokane teenager committed suicide this school year two days after he’d finished watching the popular Netflix show, “13 Reasons Why.”
His grieving parents believe the show, which dramatizes a teen’s suicide, was “a factor” in their son’s death, said David Crump, Spokane Public Schools director of mental health services. The family of the boy asked Crump to tell other families to watch the show with their children and talk openly about suicide.
Suicides in Spokane County have climbed nearly every year since 2009, reaching a high of 98 in 2015. In 2016 the number of suicides dropped slightly to 91 in Spokane County, according to an annual report from the medical examiner’s office.
The National Center for Health Statistics recently reported the U.S. hit its highest suicide rate in 30 years, with significant increases for Native Americans, people age 45 to 64, especially white women, as well as girls between 10 and 14. The only demographic groups that did not see a rise in suicides were black men and people over 75, the national report said.
This year in Spokane Public Schools there were two suicides. There were none the year before and three three years ago, Moore said. Central Valley School District had one suicide this year, and about five in the last “few years,” according to spokeswoman Marla Nunberg.
“The nation is talking about suicide. It’s in every community,” said Chris Moore, the district’s suicide prevention coordinator. “We need to be able to talk about it.”
In an effort to do just that, the district held its first suicide prevention forum on Tuesday, bringing health care providers from around the community to answer questions. The forum was moderated by Spokane Police Lt. Tracie Meidl moderated the forum.
Moore, a counselor herself, organized the forum. She said it’s a necessary step, considering the prevalence of suicide and suicidal ideation, particularly in youth.
Suicide has become an increasing focus in popular culture, Moore said, as illustrated by the show “13 Reasons Why” which follows a teenage girl’s suicide.
Moore and others find the show disturbing and damaging because it glorifies suicide and overlooks possible solutions and options.
Particularly damaging, they say, is the deceased girl’s ability to return and view the events unfolding following her death. For many teenagers whom Crump has talked to, the idea of suicide is not always linked to death. They often don’t understand, he said, the permanence of such a decision.
“It’s an impulsive capricious thought,” Crump said.
While Crump, and others aren’t fans of the show, that doesn’t mean he thinks suicide shouldn’t be discussed. Open and honest conversations are vital.
“We as a society, we are not good with death,” he said. “We avoid it in our culture.”
That means for many children, a classmate’s suicide may be their first introduction to death.
For that reason, Sabrina Votava, director of the nonprofit FailSafe for Life, said she thinks “13 Reasons Why” might have some positive impacts.
“I’ve also heard from some parents that they felt it was a good opportunity for them to start a conversation around suicide,” said Votava.
Still, like Crump and others, she believes the show can be a problem, especially if it’s not discussed and talked about.
“It’s glamorizing the notion that someone might get what they need after death,” she said.
Connie Mott, a counselor in the Central Valley School District, also emphasized the importance of talking about suicide.
“It’s very traumatic. It’s very sad and it’s very scary so it’s very difficult for people to talk about it, but that’s really what needs to happen,” she said. “They myth is if you talk about it then someone is going to carry through with it.”
She encourages parents to pay attention to their children, especially keeping an eye out for drastic changes in mood or life habits. And, she said, let your children know they should talk about any dark or suicidal thoughts they may be having with an adult they trust.
“Parents know,” she said. “Trust your guts, your instinct or your intuition.”
For Ciarra Shaffer, a freshman at Mead High School the show helped her talk about suicide with her mom. Shaffer said she used to cut herself, although she never considered suicide. She has lost a friend to suicide, though. Watching “13 Reasons Why” convinced her to throw her “blades” away, she said.
“Watching that scene in the show, I got super sick and I wasn’t feeling very well and I knew that I never wanted to hurt myself again or put my family through anything like that,” she said.