13 reasons why not

Inspired by ‘13 Reasons Why,’ a Michigan school has started a campaign to combat teen suicide

You’ve probably heard of “13 Reasons Why,” a popular Netflix series among young people. So far, it’s the most tweeted-about show of 2017. The series, however, has garnered criticism from school officials and psychological experts. The National Association of School Psychologists has even issued guidelines for educators for talking with students about the show.

The concern stems from the storyline that, while shining a spotlight on teen suicide, does little, critics say, to offer hope or solutions. The main character takes her own life and leaves behind 13 tapes for those she claims drove her tragic decision. Many are worried the show glamorizes suicide and could trigger a “contagion effect” that leads vulnerable teens to end their own lives. So it’s no surprise that an effort by one Michigan high school to turn such a negative influence into a movement of positive awareness is going viral.

Students at Oxford High School, located north of Detroit, made local and national headlines with the start of their “13 Reasons Why Not” project. According to the Oakland Press, the campaign is the brainchild of the high school dean, Pam Fine.

“I watched the series. I thought it accurately depicted the problems that teenagers in high school are facing now. But it was incredibly troubling to me that suicide was portrayed as being, almost, inevitable, like she had no other option. The idea was to come up with 13 reasons why not, because that was not portrayed in the show. ... Even though it can get very dark, there is always hope. Our message is that there are no 13 reasons why. Suicide is not an option,” Fine told the newspaper.

The effort was kept secret, so students were surprised one Monday morning when, in addition to the usual announcements over the school public address system, they also heard the voice of a fellow classmate who described in a recorded message her experience as a victim of bullying. Instead of criticizing the bullies, she closed her comments with a note of gratitude, thanking another student who helped her get through such a difficult time.

“This tape is for you, Elise Godfrey. You saw me when no one else did and continued to listen, share and appreciate the small things with me. Thank you for your kindness I cannot repay. You are one of my 13 reasons why not.”

Similar recorded messages were played for a total of 13 mornings and continue to have a “pay it forward” effect, with positive messages such as “you’re beautiful” being left on the school’s bathroom mirrors.

Despite concerns raised with “13 Reasons Why,” Netflix decided to renew the series for another season. Netflix did add a warning at the beginning of the first episode, but given the scope of the suicide problem, those concerned say it’s not enough. In the meantime parents and educators are hoping to see more efforts to prevent suicide gain popularity. Oxford High School Principal Todd Dunckley told The Oakland Press he can’t help but be proud of his students.

“I think it makes students realize that, everyday, they can affect someone with their words and actions,” he said.

Although Oxford is a public high school, the “13 Reasons Why Not” project has definite Christian undertones, reminding all of us that no person is an island. We all have human dignity and are made in the image and likeness of God. We just have to do a better job of expressing this truth to those around us, giving them 13 reasons­ — and then some — why their life is indeed worth living.

Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and SiriusXM Channel 130.