“Degrassi” creator Linda Schuyler says she’s concerned about elements of the second season of “13 Reasons Why.” (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

‘Degrassi’ writers explain why it’s hard for ‘13 Reasons Why’ to tackle teen troubles

TORONTO — “Degrassi” creator Linda Schuyler is certainly no stranger to stirring up controversy with boundary-pushing stories about teen life, but she says she’s concerned about elements of the highly contentious second season of “13 Reasons Why.”

The Canadian TV veteran admits she hasn’t watched the Netflix phenomenon, but she has read some of the reviews and critiques of the series, which is coming under fire for an especially graphic finale that includes a sexual assault and a student who plans a school shooting.

A character who killed herself in the first season also returns as a ghost who haunts a classmate, which is the part Schuyler takes issue with.

“I found that a very troubling concept because it’s almost like saying to the kids: ‘Hey, you know what, if you take your own life you can still kind of check in what’s happening with all your buddies and your peer group,’” says Schuyler, writer and producer of the award-winning franchise, currently running on Netflix as “Degrassi: Next Class.”

“As I say, I haven’t seen the execution, but conceptually, I found that rather disturbing.”

Reaction to the show’s second season, which launched last Friday, has been especially harsh among some mental-health professionals who have objected especially to the portrayal of a disturbing assault in the finale.

For its part, Netflix has been proactive in providing content warnings ahead of some episodes, which tackle heady topics including rape, sexual assault, bullying, and substance abuse.

The streaming giant also re-edited the first season to include a disclaimer before its pilot, in which the actors warn viewers the show may not be suitable for anyone struggling with these issues, or that some vulnerable viewers may want to watch with a trusted adult.

Nevertheless, concerns persist about the impact of the show.

The Canadian Centre for Threat Assessment & Trauma Response issued a letter the day the second season premiered noting it had received “numerous calls and emails with questions and concerns” about the show.

“Once again, be mindful of using this as an educational resource as it may contribute as an additional risk enhancer to those who are vulnerable, have a history of trauma, are victims of related content, or are currently struggling with suicidal ideation,” states the letter, directed at school divisions across the country.

“With season one, the overall content was very heavy and it is quite likely many of you experienced the impact of these complex traumatic triggers in your school community. We need to be prepared that this is likely to arise after the release of season two with similar content being covered.”

The centre advises educators who refer to the series in class to consult counsellors, and inform parents about the subject matter and strategies for discussing it with their children.

Jon Olafson, a student services consultant with the Winnipeg School Division, says he’s bracing for the possibility of fallout from the series.

He hasn’t seen the new episodes but criticizes the first season for failing to depict helpful adults, pointing to a guidance counsellor who doesn’t respond well to a young character. He expects the second season will raise more needed, but tough, conversations.

“There’s a sexual assault, there’s conversations around bullying, substance use, violence and suicidal ideation — so we know that those are all topics that can be important to talk about but can be really difficult,” says Olafson, whose division represents 78 schools, 33,000 students and 6,000 staff across the city.

“And if you’re not mindful of how you’re talking about those they can be really triggering and difficult for vulnerable youth who maybe experienced that or have someone in their life who experienced that.”

Kids Help Phone executive Alisa Simon says she’s gratified to see Netflix point viewers to mental-health services but says that’s not enough.

“What we would really like to see is there be more information about the supports that are available in different countries so young people know exactly where they can go for support,” says Simon, vice president, service innovation & chief youth officer in Toronto.

“Kids Help Phone is listed on a global resource website that Netflix has, but you have to go try to find that website. And we really believe that, particularly if you’re going to have graphic content, you need to make it really simple for young people to know where they reach out for help.”

Longtime “Degrassi” producers and writers Schuyler and Stephen Stohn acknowledge the difficulty in handling sensitive material for what can be a vulnerable audience.

“The biggest thing one’s concerned about when you’re doing a (story about) suicide, a school shooting, is copycat syndrome. As producers you don’t take on those topics without very much getting feedback from experts who work in the field,” says Schuyler, who admits they struggled with how to portray suicide in three episodes themselves, including one in 2014.

“The very last one that we did it was suicide by one of our star hockey players and we very much followed the effects that his sudden death had on the student body. But one of the things we never revealed and we never showed was how it happened, how he did it…. And that was a very conscious and important decision on our behalf of our show and what we felt was the protection of our young audience.”

Still, she and Stohn say it’s important to tackle tough issues openly, and not shy away from difficult topics that may offend.

“When we’ve done episodes on oral sex and rainbow parties and stuff like that, it’s been like, ‘Oh, seriously, do we have to tell these stories?’ And we say, ‘Yeah, because it’s happening to our kids,’” says Schuyler.

“But again, we’re trying to acknowledge that these things are happening to our kids and we’re trying to give our kids the tools to (say), ‘OK, you’re faced in a situation and somebody expects this from you at a party, how do you deal with it?’ rather than being very sensational.”

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