13 Reasons Why, the Netflix series created after Jay Asher’s bestselling book, is creating quite a stir among parents, teenagers, educators, and mental health professionals. It is currently the most popular show on Netflix, with the most social media presence of any of their series. The show follows teenager Clay Jensen, played by Dylan Minnette, as he aims to uncover, through cassette tapes left behind, why his classmate has taken her own life. Heavy topics are addressed and the series depicts bullying, body shaming, sexual assault, rape, and a distressing and vivid portrayal of suicide. While viewers seem to enjoy the dramatic tale, mental health professionals are validly concerned about the effects the show will have on teenagers.
Is 13 Reasons Why a risky show for teens to watch? To what extent is something as personal as suicide contagious? There are four decades of research on the matter and it has been concluded that TV shows, movies, and news articles on suicide can lead to an immediate increase in suicides. Experts believe at least 5% of youth suicides can be linked to what is called suicide contagion. When actress Marilyn Monroe’s death was revealed as a probable suicide, the rate of suicides across the nation rose 12%. It is also dubbed “The Werther Effect”, after a book entitled The Sorrows of the Young Werther, by Goethe. The book, published in 1774, led to an uptick of suicides amongst young European men and the book was subsequently banned in Italy and parts of Denmark. While the Netflix series has been creating controversy, it is with good cause.
One school district in Colorado recently pulled Asher’s novel from the library, after seven suicides have occurred since the beginning of the school year. After complaints of censorship, Mesa County Valley School District allowed the book back on the shelves. St. Vincent Elementary School in Alberta, Canada has prohibited students from even mentioning the show at school. Many schools are emailing parents and sending home letters about how this show can affect youth. Yet, there are teachers around the country who utilize the book as a tool to teach about difficult topics. Author Jay Asher wrote the bestseller after experiencing a close relative’s suicide attempt. He has spoken to students in all fifty states about his controversial book.
Executive producer Selena Gomez can relate to some of the mental health issues that 13 Reasons Why covers. Gomez, who struggles with lupus, was experiencing anxiety and depression at the start of production. She hopes that young adults will use this show to start conversations about difficult issues, “without starting from the place of fear or having to protect their own secrets.” In an interview with Vanity Fair, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez explains the final, disturbing suicide scene and the research he conducted prior to its creation. And, while the original book does not have a graphic suicide scene, Alvarez confronted it head on. As Hannah slits her wrists, the camera does not pan away. Alvarez thought doing so would have been saying “let’s keep this taboo. Let’s keep this in your mind. And in some ways, that’s worse.”
Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in young people, passing homicide rates in the past few years. In fact, more teens and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, stroke, influenza, pneumonia, birth defects, and chronic lung disease- combined. Each day, approximately 5,240 suicide attempts are made by youth in grades 7-12. And, the number of girls committing suicide between the ages of 10 and 14 has more than tripled since 1999.
We see some of these horrors in the news. In January of this year, an 8 year old boy hanged himself after he was bullied at school. In April, an online prank lead to an 11 year old boy committing suicide, after he thought his girlfriend had taken her own life. Across the globe, hundreds of teen deaths have been recently linked to a suicide challenge game called Blue Whale. This online social media group gives participants daily tasks over 50 days. Finally, it instructs susceptible youth to kill themselves as their closing challenge.
The National Association of School Psychologists released a statement, in response to 13 Reasons Why, that asserts, “We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.” However, the show has already been viewed by countless teenagers. The arguable Pandora’s Box is wide open and teens who have watched the series cannot unsee the horrific suicide scene. The focus moving forward must be to maintain thoughtful dialogues with the youth in your life. Know the warning signs of suicide and approach this popular series with caution.