South Portland High School senior Julia Stanton has watched the wildly popular but controversial Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” mostly out of curiosity.

“I wanted to understand the strong reactions of my classmates,” she said. “And I certainly do.”

Emotionally heavy subjects such as sexual assault and suicide have been tackled by teen-targeted television shows, movies and novels before, but there is something about “13 Reasons Why” that has alarmed some educators and mental health experts.

The 13-episode series, based on a 2007 young-adult book by Jay Asher, launched March 31 on the video-streaming website Netflix. Viewers learn in the first episode that the main character, Hannah, 17, has taken her own life. She leaves behind 13 cassette tapes that collectively serve as an explanation for why she chose suicide. Each tape represents a person who wronged Hannah in some way. The rest of the series plays out largely in flashbacks that include an extended rape scene before culminating with Hannah’s suicide, which is shown in graphic detail.

The National Association of School Psychologists recently sent a notice to school mental health professionals offering guidance on how to talk to students about the show – the first time the group ever has made such a move. The American Psychological Association also wrote a letter cautioning youths who might have suicidal thoughts against watching the series, which has generated significant buzz, especially via social media.

The move comes as recent statistics show that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Mainers ages 10-25. The state has a suicide rate higher than the national average.

In Maine, the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness partnered last week with the state Department of Education on a letter for school districts to send to parents, if they choose. Many have done so.

Susan Barry, director of coordinated school health programs for the education department, said the staff felt that it was important to respond to the series appropriately.

“I would say that it’s not a common occurrence, but if there is something that poses a safety risk, it’s important to be proactive,” she said.

Greg Marley, NAMI Maine’s clinical director, said the letter is meant to encourage parents to talk about the show with their children or watch it with them.

“This series really calls to the adults in kids’ lives to engage in a conversation about these issues,” he said. “We should be able to talk about suicide and talk about the stressors and drivers that get to understand why it should never be seen as a solution.”

The biggest concern, Marley said, is contagion or copycat behavior. That risk is biggest among adolescents, who tend to be impulsive.

Stanton said the classmates she has talked to “either love or hate the show,” with no one indifferent. She couldn’t think of any other work of fiction that has generated the same level of discussion among her peers.

“For some, it was simply a story they could watch in fascination and enjoy the fictional tale for what it is,” she said. “For many others, however, it was extremely triggering and overly graphic. It trivialized thoughts that many teens have had, and really upset a lot of students I know who watched it.”

Makeda Zabot-Hall, a freshman at Portland High School, said she heard about the show from friends before she sat down to watch it last month.

“It was a big thing on social media,” the 15-year-old said.

Makeda said she found the show “intriguing,” but felt that it underplayed the reasons for Hannah’s suicide.

“They did put it on (the other) kids,” rather than showing the role Hannah’s depression played in the events that led to her killing herself.

And some of the situations depicted in the show struck her as unrealistic, such as a school counselor telling Hannah to try to move on with her life after she was raped, rather than helping her deal with the trauma.

LETTERS SENT TO PARENTS

Dominic DePatsy, school superintendent in Saco, said he and other superintendents in York County decided collectively to send out letters to parents last Friday about “13 Reasons Why” before the public discussion grew louder.

“We kept it short rather than make a huge deal out of it,” he said. “We want them to be aware and have the opportunity to talk to their kids.”

DePatsy, who has five kids of his own ranging from 11 to 18, said if any of them showed interest, he would watch it himself first. So far, he hasn’t had to do that.

Jeff Porter, superintendent for SAD 51 in Cumberland and North Yarmouth, said his staff also sent notices to parents – a first.

“I think it’s definitely a topic that’s come to the forefront,” he said of teen suicide. “It used to be we would bury stuff like this and never talk about it. That’s not a choice anymore. And sometimes frank discussions are important.”

Porter has had that conversation with his own teenage daughter, who had been talking about the show with friends and wanted to watch it. Porter gave his OK, if he could watch it as well.

“I was concerned before I started but, having watched the first three episodes, I think it’s more about relationships than it is suicide,” he said.

He said athat lthough some professionals have urged a boycott of the show, he doesn’t think that would help.

“If you forbid it, then they watch anyway, but they won’t talk about it afterwards because they can’t acknowledge they watched it,” he said.

Cape Elizabeth also sent an email to parents that said vulnerable kids, especially those who have expressed thoughts of suicide, shouldn’t watch the series. The email also included a link to a statement from the National Association of School Psychologists expressing concern about the show and tips for how parents can discuss the series with their children.

South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin said the buzz among students increased last week, after they all returned from April vacation.

By the time the NASP and the Maine Department of Education sent out resources, some administrators already were talking about how to address the show.

“We can’t tell kids to turn it off, but what we can do is engage them in meaningful conversation,” Kunin said.

Suicide risk among students is one of the things that keeps Kunin up at night. He said teachers and staff are much better trained on the issue than ever before, but he also worries that students may be exposed to more triggers, as well.

“There has been a lot of thoughtful research over the last 20 years about risk factors and sensationalizing or glamorizing – we know that to be a factor in people taking a permanent step to solve a temporary problem.”

CRITICISM FOR DEPICTION OF SUICIDE

Because Netflix is a subscription-based service, the series can show far more graphic images than a network TV show.

It’s those handful of graphic scenes, as well as the fact that Hannah’s suicide is driven in part by revenge against the people who let her down, that have driven concern.

Some also have criticized the depiction of a school counselor on the show, who does not take Hannah’s report of sexual assault seriously, and the fact that the series doesn’t explore whether Hannah has a mental illness that contributed to her suicidal behavior.

“What the series does accurately convey is that there is no single cause of suicide. However, the series does not emphasize that common among most suicide deaths is the presence of treatable mental illnesses,” NAMI and the Maine Department of Education wrote in the letter.

In 2015, there were 235 reported suicides in Maine. It’s the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 25, according to NAMI, and the third-leading cause of death for those ages nationwide.

Maine’s rate of suicide is consistently higher than the national average and has been slowly rising over the last 15 years – a rate of 16.54 suicides per 100,000 residents, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. By comparison, the national rate was 13.41 per 100,000 people.

The number of suicides among 15- to 24-year-olds in Maine increased from 17 in 2008 to 30 in 2014.

Marley said data from the annual Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey also shows that 14 percent of seventh-graders and 17 percent of eighth-graders had seriously considered suicide and about 6 percent of middle school students had made an attempt.

For a variety of reasons, he said, there have been more suicides and, in general, more stress and anxiety among young people.

“But suicide is preventable when we can recognize the behaviors and warnings,” he said.

The issue of teen suicide gained attention in Portland in March 2016 when a Waynflete junior became the second student at the private school to take her life in five months, and the school took the unusual step of posting public messages about the deaths on the school website.

Netflix, in response to the recent backlash, added warnings before the first episode and also before some specific episodes, including ones when sexual assault and suicide occur.

The online video-streaming giant also released a statement in the face of scrutiny.

“There has been a tremendous amount of discussion about our series 13 Reasons Why. While many of our members find the show to be a valuable driver for starting important conversation with their families, we have also heard concern from those who feel the series should carry additional advisories,” it read.

The series also includes a 3-minute show called “Beyond the Reasons,” that further explores some of the topics in the show and offers resources.

Stanton, the senior at South Portland, said shows like “13 Reasons Why” can be productive, but she thinks it ultimately missed the mark.

“I believe that while suicide and teen sexual assault are important topics to discuss, an overly dramatized TV show isn’t the wisest first approach,” she said. “It glorifies a terrible and very real tragedy, and is sending the message to teens that the emotional revenge Hannah gets will somehow satisfy her even in death. Suicide is a permanent end to life, yet this show trivializes that by making Hannah the main character, still present in some way.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell