Suicide is not a solution. It’s a tragic choice that can be influenced by group behavior.
Since the controversial series “13 Reasons Why” first aired on Netflix six weeks ago, the Suicide Prevention Crisis Line at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services has helped 39 vulnerable young people who mentioned the series during their calls or chats. We fear that these cries for help are only the beginning, that over time we will see a wave of copycat suicides among adolescents who are binge-watching the 13 episodes.
“13 Reasons Why” is based on a best-selling 2007 young-adult novel by Jay Asher, in which high-school student Hannah Baker ends her life and leaves behind audiotapes for 13 people who she says contributed to her death by bullying, raping or failing to help her.
Essentially, the plot portrays Hannah as a tragic heroine who defeats her callous tormentors by sacrificing herself. And it depicts Hannah’s actual suicide in details that vividly instruct other teens how to imitate her.
These are terribly misguided ways of depicting suicide, the second-leading cause of death for teens and young adults. Graphic depictions of suicide have been proven to increase the risk of suicide contagion, especially among vulnerable individuals, whose thinking is clouded and whose coping skills are limited.
Six years ago, suicide prevention advocates developed media guidelines to educate journalists about how they could minimize copycat suicides and encourage vulnerable youth to seek help. Coverage that violates these guidelines is unhealthy for all ages.
But, an influential 2003 study of the contagion effect by Columbia University researcher Madelyn Gould found that teens age 15 to 19 are particularly at risk. Teens who are exposed to a suicide are two to four times more likely to take their own lives. They are susceptible because their brains, particularly the part that can assess risks and consequences, are not yet fully developed.
That is why schools have been urged to curb elaborate, long-lasting memorials after suicides and balance remembrance with education. Any discussion of suicide should:
1. Emphasize that about 90% of individuals who die by suicide have a treatable mental illness such a depression or substance use;
2. Teach the warning signs of suicide;
3. Stress that silence kills—it’s better to tell your friends’ secrets than to bury them;
4. Provide links to easily accessible resources for those contemplating suicide and those who are worried about them.
The creator and backers of “13 Reasons Why” (including co-executive producer Selena Gomez, the pop star and actress) describe the series as a realistic portrayal of teen suicide that will show young people at risk that there is “nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.”
Though this may have been their intention, based on the research, the episodes in the first season will have the opposite effect. I am reminded of a teen I treated years ago. After watching a movie about the negative effects of drug use, she told me, “It just made me want to try drugs.”
To its credit, Netflix has added viewer warning information to the series and created a website (13reasonswhy.info) that provides information about crisis hotlines in 36 countries. In addition, a half-hour companion piece, “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons,” features the cast, producers and mental health professionals discussing the issues raised in the series.
This in and of itself is a good thing, but it doesn’t unring the bell. Even if we assume that young viewers are taking the time to watch the companion feature, much more needs to be done.
Now that Netflix has renewed the show for a second season, we hope the writers and producers heed current media guidelines. Although they were developed for journalists covering actual suicides, the distinction is academic. But life isn’t.
Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services — home to the nation’s first Suicide Prevention Center— joins suicide prevention advocates throughout the nation in advising Netflix to post the following information at the beginning and end of each episode:
Save your life. Save a friend’s life.
Call the national Lifeline at 800-273-8255
Chat with a Lifeline Crisis Chat specialist at www.crisischat.org/chat
We’re here to help 24/7.
On June 7, Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services is co-sponsoring a panel discussion about “13 Reasons Why” at UCLA’s “Open Mind” event.