2 California families claim '13 Reasons Why' triggered teens' suicides

Bella Herndon, 15, and Priscilla Chiu, also 15, died by suicide in April.

ByABC News
June 28, 2017, 5:33 PM

— -- Bella Herndon was a 15-year-old who loved to read and write and was earning straight As as a sophomore in high school.

Priscilla Chiu was also a high school sophomore described as “precocious” and “determined."

Both teenagers died by suicide in April. Their families say Bella and Priscilla both watched “13 Reasons Why,” the controversial Netflix show about suicide, just days before taking their own lives.

“I didn't find out until the funeral,” John Herndon, of Livermore, California, told ABC News. “Bella's friends told me that three days before she hung herself she had finished watching this Netflix show '13 Reasons Why.’

“The more I looked into it, the more appalled I was,” he said.

“13 Reasons Why” is based on a 2007 young adult novel of the same title. The 13-part serial, set in the San Francisco area, focuses on 17-year-old Hannah Baker, a high school student who takes her own life and leaves behind audio recordings for 13 people who she blamed for playing a part in her decision to kill herself.

Priscilla watched the show before she hanged herself in April, according to her uncle, Peter Chiu, with whom Priscilla lived in San Mateo. Chiu said Priscilla battled depression too.

“I feel it's dangerous for that small percentage of young adults who the show can become a trigger for them," Chiu, who declined to comment to ABC News, told local station KTVU-TV about "13 Reasons Why." "I feel as if the show gives only one alternative for cyberbullying and other teenage issues."

PHOTO: Priscilla Chiu poses with her father, brother and uncle in this undated family photo.
Priscilla Chiu poses with her father, brother and uncle in this undated family photo.
Peter Chiu

At the show's launch earlier this year, the producers, including pop star Selena Gomez, said their desire was to help teens.

"We wanted to do in a way where it was honest and we wanted to make something that can hopefully help people because suicide should never ever be an option," Gomez said.

Once the show aired, it faced backlash from parents, school officials and mental health advocates concerned "13 Reasons Why" could lead to a “copycat” effect of suicide. The National Association of School Psychologists cautioned that "vulnerable youth" not watch the series because they may "romanticize" the choices made by the characters.

Netflix announced in May it was strengthening existing warnings and introducing new ones to the show's viewers. The production team said they consulted with mental health professionals extensively while making the series and provide suicide prevention resources and information on crisis hotlines in more than 35 countries on the website 13ReasonsWhy.info.

The new warnings came just as Netflix announced it greenlit "13 Reasons Why" for a second season to debut next year.

Herndon believes the show acted as a “trigger” for Bella, who sought counseling for depression after being bullied in middle school. At the time of her death, Bella was thriving in high school, according to her dad, who called Bella's suicide a "shock."

PHOTO: Bella Herndon and her father, John Herndon, pose together in this undated family photo.
Bella Herndon and her father, John Herndon, pose together in this undated family photo.
John Herndon

“It created this perception that there's no way out, there's no alternative,” Herndon said of “13 Reasons Why,” which he believes Bella watched on her iPad through the family’s Netflix account. “The [main character] looked to people and was turned away, and it created a series of events that led to a very black-and-white outcome, which was 'take your life.'”

Herndon said he is working with both his local congressman and an attorney to “open a conversation” with Netflix. He plans to ask the streaming service to pull the first season of "13 Reasons Why" off Netflix and stop production on the show's second season.

He would also like to see Netflix take new measures to better inform parents of mature content accessible to kids.

“Parents would have to know about what this show has in terms of content in order to think about putting restrictions on it,” he said. “How do you stop something that you don't even know exists in the first place?”

Netflix told ABC News in a statement it was “mindful” of the “sensitive topics” covered in “13 Reasons Why.”

“Our hearts go out to these families during this difficult time. We have heard from many viewers that '13 Reasons Why' has opened up a dialogue among parents, teens, schools and mental health advocates around the intense themes and difficult topics depicted in the show,” the statement reads. "In our approach, we were mindful the material covered sensitive topics, as the young adult novel did when it was published in 2007.

“We took extra precautions to alert viewers to the nature of the content, produced a 'Beyond the Reasons,' a special episode featuring the cast and creators discussing their experience in dealing with such sensitive themes, and created a global website to help people find local mental health resources.”

Child psychologist Janet Taylor said she applauds Gomez for addressing mental health issues on the show.

"I think we don't talk enough when things aren't going well," she said on ABC's "Good Morning America" in April. "I had one patient say, 'I have to be perfect because I'm so flawed.' Where did she get that?

"We have to break the silence, talk to our parents, talk to counselors," she added. "If you have a family history of mental illness, be aware of it, talk to your children. If your child makes a threat about wanting to hurt themselves, take it seriously."

Chiu said he hopes producers, specifically Gomez, use the show's high profile to help its audience members who may be vulnerable.

“I would implore and beg Selena Gomez because she has a huge platform to please reach out to our kids and please tell them there are other options," he told KTVU-TV. "There are other resources out there. This is not a way out for you."

Herndon said he is not advocating a protest against Netflix, but hopes to honor Bella’s memory by pushing for suicide awareness.

“All I would ask is just as parents or teachers or just concerned citizens, I would just ask if this means anything to you at all and you feel strongly enough to reach out to Netflix in any way to express that, you have my utmost thanks,” he said. “I will do anything and everything I possibly can to make sure this doesn't happen to another family.”

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.