More students at Highland Middle School have been exhibiting signs of depression and suicidal thoughts over the last three years, according to an email Principal Erick Baer sent to parents recently.
“This concern has actually come from observations that have been made due to the pressures that students are exposed to today,” he said in an email to the News-Democrat.
The school alerted parents to a new Netflix series that children could be watching called “13 Reasons Why.” Baer said the series depicts depression and suicide, which might be “very close to home” for some students.
In “13 Reasons Why,” high school student Hannah Baker records her voice on cassette tapes to explain the 13 reasons she decided to kill herself. Among the reasons are bullying and sexual violence from her classmates, who individually receive and listen to the tapes after Hannah is dead.
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Baer said a parent brought “13 Reasons Why” to his attention, so he spoke to teachers to find out if students were talking about the series or the book on which it’s based.
“Teachers have heard rumblings from students having side conversations about the series,” he said.
In Wolf Branch District 113, Assistant Superintendent Nicole Sanderson took to social media to alert parents that some students were discussing “13 Reasons Why” there, too. She invited parents to call the district if they needed help talking with their children in a post to the district’s Facebook page.
“There are different perspectives on whether the content is appropriate for middle school students,” Sanderson wrote in the post. “It is our intent to just call attention to the series to make parents aware of the heavy content and allow parents the opportunity to do some research and talk with your children about what is right for your family.”
Baer said the staff at both the middle school and high school in Highland have been given resources since “13 Reasons Why” was released, including suggested talking points about the series and the warning signs of suicide from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“While the book is not used formally as a teaching tool, if necessary, we have instructed staff to set boundaries and limits around conversations about the series and to reach out to counselors as needed,” Baer stated in the email to parents.
The talking points that school staff were given are from Jed Foundation, which partners with schools to improve their suicide preventative programs, according to its website. The nonprofit suggests emphasizing that the series is fictional and directing young people to resources like family, counselors, therapists or a crisis line.
“Leaving messages from beyond the grave is a dramatization produced in Hollywood and is not possible in real life,” one talking point states.
East St. Louis District 189 has also prepared some of its social workers to talk to students about “13 Reasons Why” if a child brings it up. They participated in a webinar with mental-health professionals, according to Tiffany Gholson, director of parent and student support services. The social workers received the same suggested talking points as Highland staff were given.
Other school leaders say they haven’t introduced new resources, but their staff members do try to educate students about mental health.
In Edwardsville District 7, students learn through school programs starting in middle school, according to Superintendent Lynda Andre. She said younger students are taught about cyberbullying and how to report the things they see online.
When they get to high school, Andre said the focus is on suicide prevention, which involves teaching students to identify warning signs in themselves and friends.
But lessons about mental health are also integrated into the curriculum. Within health instruction, for example, Andre said students learn about social and emotional health. They’re also exposed to issues related to Internet safety, like cyberbullying, in computer instruction, she said.
As a result of the programs and instruction, Andre said District 7 has a culture of students looking out for other students.
“Many times, we will hear from students that they’re worried about another student,” she said.
In Belleville District 118, Superintendent Matt Klosterman said a team of social workers are available for students in the district’s 11 schools.
“Over the last several years, because of additional stressors that affect lots of families, we certainly have students who struggle with mental health issues,” he said.
One change Klosterman said the district has seen in recent years is a willingness to talk about depression.
“We’re probably more likely to have conversations about that aspect of mental health,” Klosterman said. “We try to be proactive about getting that conversation going.”
What to look for
The following are some warning signs that a person might be suicidal.
- Talk: If they talk about killing themselves, having no reason to live, being a burden to others, feeling trapped or experiencing unbearable pain.
- Behavior: If they start increasing their use of alcohol or drugs, looking for a way to kill themselves such as searching online for materials or means, acting recklessly, withdrawing from activities, isolating from family and friends, sleeping too much or too little, visiting or calling people to say goodbye, giving away prized possessions or displaying aggression.
- Mood: People who are considering suicide often display depression, loss of interest, rage, irritability, humiliation or anxiety.
Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention