Teenager Alexa Curtis, Who Considered Suicide at 15, Reacts to 13 Reasons Why
At 15 years old and the target of incessant cyberbullies, Alexa Curtis nearly ended it all.
But she survived — and now, at the age of 19, she oversees the non-profit Media Impact and Navigation for Teens, a program to raise awareness about online bullying.
When Curtis, who is also a popular blogger, decided to watch Netflix’s new series 13 Reasons Why, she never expected she’d be so critical of it.
“That last episode [which depicts a character’s suicide by slitting their wrists], I had so many moments where I thought, ‘This is what I wanted to do,’ ” Curtis explains to PEOPLE. “I am so glad I didn’t watch this at 15, because I probably would have done something.”
The 13-episode series, based on Jay Asher’s hit young adult novel of the same name, premiered on March 31 and centers on the contents of 13 cassette tapes left behind by high school student Hannah Baker, who killed herself after making the tapes for the people she felt were responsible.
“It makes [suicide] look like an easy way out,” Curtis says, “and lots of girls I’ve spoken to say it hits too close to home — that it was just too alarming to watch, as it depicted situations they had been in before.”
The show was well-received by critics for its unflinching look at the dark side of teenage relationships — including alcohol and drug use and sexual assault — and it has been the focus of intense social media conversation.
But that attention has also bolstered the controversy it faces for its depiction of self-harm.
“I thought that the show was, in a way, glamorizing teen suicide,” Curtis tells PEOPLE. “The fact that Hannah Baker is living on through these tapes, that her voice is still echoing on … that gives a bad presentation.”
This week, Netflix announced a decision to add a warning to the show before it can be viewed and to strengthen its episode advisories.
“Entertainment has always been the ultimate connector,” the network said in a statement, “and we hope that 13 Reasons Why can serve as a catalyst for conversation.”
“We worked with experts to show how these issues impact teens in real and dramatic ways,” Netflix said.
Dr. Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer at the suicide prevention non-profit JED Foundation, agrees that the series “created great conversation.”
“But now [kids may think] suicide is what happens when people wrong you,” he says.
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As someone who grappled with suicidal thoughts, Curtis tells PEOPLE that families should get involved and ask questions.
“A lot of young adults have already watched the show, so parents should immediately talk to their kids and ask them things like, ‘How did it make you feel?’ ” she says.”[And,] ‘Do you know any friends who are going through this sort of thing? What would you do if you saw someone inappropriately touching your friend?’ ”
“I think parents should check in with their kids every week,” Curtis says, “just ask them, ‘How are you feeling? Do you ever feel depressed like Hannah does on the show?’ ”
She says that while the topic of suicide may be sensitive — and statistics show it is a leading cause of death for people ages 10-24 — silence could do more harm than good.
That recommendation is echoed by mental health experts who say reaching out to someone in need is a simple but highly effective suicide prevention technique.
“Uncomfortable issues will come up for teens” who have seen the show, Curtis says. “They may self-harm, which is not the best route to go. Parents need to talk to their children. They need to be a friend and a parent at the same time now and make their kids comfortable with opening up.”