Emily Adair
The La Grande Observer

Editor’s note

This is the first of three stories regarding the Netflix original show “13 Reasons Why” and its themes of bullying, self-harm and suicide.

When “13 Reasons Why” was released on Netflix on March 30, it created a whirlwind of conflicting reactions.

The show, which heavily incorporates themes associated with suicide, may especially strike a nerve with many in the La Grande community four years after the loss of La Grande High School sophomore Jadin Bell.

Bell’s family members and friends said bullying drove him to suicide, and they later launched an anti-bullying campaign called Faces for Change. Viewers could draw parallels with the “13 Reasons Why” character Hannah Baker, who cites bullying as a factor that drove her to suicide. Other factors included cyber bullying, sexual harassment and rape.

Since his death, Bell’s name and face have been associated with a global effort to prevent suicide. Stop Homophobia, a worldwide network based in the United Kingdom, often shares an image of Bell on its Facebook page, typically to garner support for the suicide prevention cards it prints and distributes. Text on the image notes that Bell attempted suicide “after being bullied.” The text goes on to say, “Tragedies like this should never have to happen.”

Although Bell’s name is being heard around the world and won’t soon be forgotten locally, he is far from the only teen in Northeast Oregon who has struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts.

“Our caseloads are quite high,” said Cynthia Russell, who supervises the Center for Human Development’s team of youth clinicians in Union County. “There are never enough clinicians to go around.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Oregonians ages 10 to 24, according to state figures. Oregon’s suicide rate has been higher than the national average for 30 years.

“We are not at a loss for people who need our help,” Russell said.

Julie Garland, who supervises Enterprise’s Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness mental health staff for youth, said the same of Wallowa County residents.

Russell said she has had just one client specifically bring up “13 Reasons Why.” Garland and several school administrators in Union and Wallowa counties could not think of any similar instances — the show’s theme of mental health crisis is certainly prevalent in Northeast Oregon.

Fortunately, many people are actively working to address issues like bullying, depression and suicide. LHS, for instance, has taken several “proactive steps” since Bell’s death, according to La Grande School District Superintendent Larry Glaze. Among them, Glaze said, the high school has developed a threat assessment system used to evaluate an individual’s potential for self-harm or for harming others.

“It’s a team process,” Glaze said. “We recently sent some of our staff to Salem for a week’s worth of training. Some local police officers and the sheriff’s office were also there.”

In addition, the school district utilizes a statewide school safety tip line called Safe Oregon. The 24-hour tip line allows students to report safety issues and bullying. Reports can be made by email to tip@safeoregon.com or by texting or calling 844-472-3367.

The La Grande School District also helps middle school students transition to high school, using the Link Crew Program. Glaze said having an established relationship with a fellow classmate who already knows his or her way around the school can be a great step toward mental wellness at school.

“(Additionally,) the Link Crew pairs freshmen with seniors as advisers and confidants,” Glaze said.

Another program involves the teachers occasionally presenting lessons in their classrooms on a variety of topics, like bully prevention, safety and success in school, and, a few years ago, the school started contracting mental health counselors through CHD with the help of grants.

“That has been a real plus,” Glaze said. “It really helps kids who need support in the area.”

LHS isn’t alone in providing in-school access to mental health experts. Cove, Elgin, Imbler, North Powder and Union schools also contract services through CHD, providing school-based health centers and/or school-based therapists.

In Wallowa County, counselors contracted through the Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness work in each of the Enterprise, Joseph and Wallowa public schools two days every week.

“We provide services in the junior high and high schools,” Garland said. “We try to eliminate some of the barriers. Sometimes they can’t come out to see us, so we try to be in their schools.”

In all instances, the same counselors go to the same schools. That allows students to become comfortable with and trust their counselor, while the counselors can easily keep track of each student’s individual needs.

Garland and Russell said the Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness and CHD, respectively, often work closely with community partners to promote mental wellness in the area. The Center for Wellness, for instance, recently participated in a Health Fest in the schools, along with Winding Waters Clinic, Wallowa Memorial Hospital and others.

While the other organizations conducted vision and hearing tests, the Center for Wellness did depression screenings.

“It was a good chance to meet with the teens and connect them with mental health resources,” Garland said.

For the general public, however, mental health isn’t always at the forefront of conversation.

“My dream is to have the whole community, every person, working toward mental wellness,” Russell said.