The main character of a controversial Netflix series reveals "13 Reasons Why" she decided to commit suicide.
In response, one school system has created an awareness campaign that focuses on overcoming life's challenges.
The Houston County district is scheduled to release the first video in its "13 Reasons Why Not" campaign Feb. 5, which coincides with National School Counseling Week, then roll out a new episode each week through May 7. The videos, accompanying podcasts and resources will be posted on the district's website at http://www.hcbe.net under the "community" tab.
The project is a labor of love between the district's student services and community relations departments, which have been working on the project since summer, said Zabrina Cannady, assistant superintendent for student services. Season one of the Netflix series, adapted from the book by Jay Asher, created a buzz among students, staff and parents after its March 2017 release. A second season is set for release later this year.
Houston administrators and counselors had concerns about the show's message. The intent was to encourage people to get support, but many people thought the series glorified suicide and gave the perception that someone who took their life could have a voice beyond the grave, Cannady said.
"To some degree, we felt that maybe (the show) has missed its target," said Feagin Mill Middle School principal Jesse Davis, who is the subject of one of the district's videos. "We wanted to capitalize on that concept ... and couple with it a message that we felt was healthy and relatable to our kids."
In looking for ways to talk to students about the show, the district decided to develop its own campaign, said Beth McLaughlin, the system's director of community and school affairs. Staff members in the two departments interviewed 13 people, both students and adults, and put together videos ranging from 3 minutes to 5 1/2 minutes long.
"13 Reasons Why Not" started as a suicide awareness campaign and morphed into a broader campaign on daily challenges, Cannady said. Each vignette has a different theme, including "It's OK to be different," "Change is hard and I can cope," "A sense of belonging" and "Having a mental illness is not a choice."
"Each one of us has had a time in our life when we've need someone or something to help us get through," Cannady said. "It's pretty awesome to see how all these people ... have been able to get through to the other side and come out a better person. Part of the joy of this journey is just seeing how everyone has a story."
Some of the videos are about physical challenges, while others focus on invisible challenges, McLaughlin said. They all start in a similar fashion to the "13 Reasons Why" series and end with information on how to get help.
Macee McLain, a 2014 Houston High School graduate and junior at Valdosta State University, shares the story of the depression and suicidal thoughts that started in her eighth-grade year and haunted her through high school. Her classmates thought she was happy, but they didn't know she was "battling demons" outside of school, she said.
Her senior year, she told her parents what she was going through, and they got her the help she needed. McLain said depression wasn't talked about when she was in high school, and she wants to be there for others who feel like she once did.
"Depression isn't something to be ashamed about. It's something that we should be able to talk about openly and freely," she said. "I hope people will see that it does get better. I went through it for five or six years. I"m living proof that you will make it and there's light at the end of the tunnel. You have to want to help yourself to get through these times."
In his video, Davis talks about growing up with a visual impairment called congenital nystagmus.
"I often share my story with kids," Davis said. "The age group I work with, they face lots of challenges, a tumultuous time of growth. I knew I had a story that I could share that they would connect with as far as their day in and day out experience."
His family relocated often when he was a kid because his father was in the military, and at each new school, Davis faced bullying from his peers. He tried avoiding the other students, handling things on his own and getting into fights before he finally consulted some adults for advice, which made all the difference.
"It's not always comfortable to ask for help. Kids sometimes think that's being weak. That is, in fact, a sign of maturity, recognizing a situation where you need help and taking steps to get it," he said. "Every day, you are surrounded by adults at a school who come to work because they choose to help young people. But we need your help in letting us know when you're in need."
The "13 Reasons Why Not" videos are targeted at middle and high school students, although some are suitable for elementary students. It will be up to each Houston school to decide how and when they share the messages with students, McLaughlin and Cannady said. The community is welcome to use the videos for their own programs, and other school districts and groups have already expressed interest.
"We want this to help as many people as possible," McLaughlin said. "If this helps only one person, it will be worth the time and effort, and we think it already has."