In the month following the release of the hit Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, a study has noted an almost 29 percent increase in suicide rates among young people in the US aged 10 to 17.
Suicide is a complex issue that rarely has a single cause. While the study doesn’t aim to simplify the reasons behind any suicide, it does hope to highlight the importance of being sensitive when portraying suicide in popular culture and the media, especially if it's aimed at young people.
Based on a 2007 novel, 13 Reasons Why is a teen drama about a 17-year-old girl who kills herself and leaves behind a series of 13 tapes detailing the reasons why she took her own life. The show received a fair amount of praise from critics and viewers who were impressed with its genuine depiction of suicide and mental health problems among teens. Others were less sympathetic and felt the show's indulgent portrayal of suicide ran the risk of romanticizing the topic to a vulnerable group of people.
Reviewing the show for the Washington Post, television critic Hank Stuever described it as “a protracted example of the teenager who fantasizes how everyone will react when she’s gone… remarkably, even dangerously, naive in its understanding of suicide.”
The new study, published in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, noted that the number of deaths by suicide recorded in April 2017 – the month after the first season release – was 28.9 percent higher than the number seen in any single month between January 1, 2013, and December 31, 2017.
The increase was primarily driven by the deaths of young males. Female suicides did also rise after the show's release, but the increase was not statistically significant.
“The results of this study should raise awareness that young people are particularly vulnerable to the media,” study author Dr Lisa Horowitz, a clinical scientist in the NIMH Intramural Research Program, said in a statement.
The researchers do not know whether the victims of suicide had watched the show, nor how it affected them. They only discovered a correlation – which could have been caused by other factors – not a causal relation. However, based on the demographics and timing, the association is noteworthy. For example, they note that murder rates can be influenced by some of the same social and environmental factors as suicide rates; however, they did not find any significant changes in homicide rates following the release of the show.
Suicide is never straightforward and rarely caused by one factor, not least a TV show. In most cases of suicide, there is likely to be other underlying issues. For example, there are well-known risk factors everybody should be aware of, like alcohol misuse, drug use, mental health problems, and social deprivation.
A Netflix spokesperson said in a statement to The New York Times: “We’ve just seen this study and are looking into the research, which conflicts with last week’s study from the University of Pennsylvania. This is a critically important topic and we have worked hard to ensure that we handle this sensitive issue responsibly.”
In the meantime, the third season of the show is currently in production.
If you are having suicidal thoughts or you are worried about somebody else, people in the US can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Crisis Text Line: text “home” to 741 741. The line is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for anyone of any age. All calls are free and confidential.
If you’re outside the US, a list of international suicide helplines can be found here.