Photo courtesy of Netflix
The first season of 13 Reasons Why was the third most binge-watched show of that year, according to Netflix, which developed the series. Your kids probably watched it. You probably watched it. Now, a new study suggests that the depiction of Hannah Baker, a high school student who has killed herself, is associated with an alarming spike in real-life suicides.
The study, from the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, found that, in the month after 13 Reasons was streamed, the number of suicides among kids age 10 to 17 increased 29% over what would normally have been predicted based on historical data and trends.
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The authors are careful not to claim a causal link. “We can’t prove that the show caused the spike,” says one of the study’s authors, Lisa M. Horowitz, Ph.D. But the association is pretty tough to ignore. “We looked at the statistics in two different very sophisticated models,” she says. Examining suicide rates in a 5-year period that spanned the show’s release, the researchers found that April 2017—the month right after the show’s 13 first-season episodes dropped—had the highest suicide rate by 10-to-17-year-olds of any other month in that period. And the rate stayed elevated for the rest of the year. That translates to “195 suicides beyond what we expected,” Horowitz says.
“The main takeaway is that how the media portrays suicide may have a bigger impact on young people, who are vulnerable, than expected,” she says. “And that it’s really important for entertainment media and news media—when they’re reporting on a suicide or depicting a suicide or making a drama about suicide—that they follow best-practice guidelines.”
“The main things you don’t want to see, whether it’s entertainment or news reporting, are things like graphic depictions of the suicide and the method. I think one of the dangers of the show was they not only depicted and romanticized and sensationalized the suicide, but it was almost prescriptive. They showed every step,” Horowitz says.
One eyebrow-raiser from the study: The suicide spike was seen mostly in boys. Researchers have two theories on that: “One is that males in general—and this is for every age group—kill themselves at a rate three times higher than females. But females attempt suicide four times more often than males,” Horowitz says. “This study looked at deaths, it did not look at suicide attempt rates.”
“The other thought was that the book [the show was based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same name] came out earlier than the series. This is just a theory, but we think that girls were more likely to read that book, so they may have been desensitized when they saw the series,” she says.
“If your kids watch shows like 13 Reasons Why, you should watch them, too,” Horowitz advises. “Make it a conversation, not a lecture. This series made suicide look like an option, and we cannot teach our children that suicide is an option. That’s not a good solution to get through your problems or get through pain.”
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The study authors hope their findings will spur people to become more aware of the warning signs of suicide. “We need it to be a wake-up call,” Horowitz says. “Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people, and we need to eliminate it.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides a list of warning signs that can help you assess whether your teen—or anyone you know—is at risk:
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Extreme mood swings
The third season of 13 Reasons Why is currently in production.
For immediate help if you or someone you know are in a crisis, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/ to live web chat with a counselor or call the confidential toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.