Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” sparks debate concerning the show’s depiction of suicide

“13 Reasons Why, which premiered Mar. 31, has roused controversy in light of its depiction of teenage suicide.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“13 Reasons Why,” which premiered Mar. 31, has roused controversy in light of its depiction of teenage suicide.

by Michael Sikand, Social Media Editor

“13 Reasons Why,” a Netflix original series which premiered on Mar. 31, is the latest TV show that viewers around America are binge-watching en masse behind laptop screens. The series, which is based on Jay Asher’s 2007 book of the same title, documents the story of fictional teenage girl, Hannah Baker, who kills herself, but not before creating 13 cassette tapes which are each addressed to an individual she feels had an impact on her suicide decision.  

The show’s popularity has skyrocketed, with Twitter revealing that it is the most tweeted show of 2017, credited by 11 million associated tweets. While most view the show as thrilling and binge-worthy streaming fare (it has an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 94% on Google), mental health experts have expressed concern about the series’ presentation of suicide and its potential effect on depressed adolescents.

According to research from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the third leading cause of death among young adults in the United States. More research from the CDC found that nearly 160,000 young people are treated for self-inflicted injuries in emergency rooms across America.

The worry from mental health researchers stems from a phenomenon known as “suicide contagion.” The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services defines it as “exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. Direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults.”

In response to the popularity of the show, the National Association of School Psychologists released a statement which says, “Research shows that exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide.”

The writer of the show, Nic Sheff, divulged in an Apr. 19 Vanity Fair piece that he once made an attempt on his life, and his personal experience motivated him to include a graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide in the series.

“So when it came time to discuss the portrayal of the protagonist’s suicide in ’13 Reasons Why,’ I of course immediately flashed on my own experience. It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like — to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off,” he wrote. “It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all.”

Concern from mental health professionals has influenced some school administrators to send out announcements to their communities warning of the show’s content in the context of its surging popularity.

At Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, Kansas, the school’s counselors issued an announcement about the show on Shawnee High’s Facebook page.

“Check it out yourself, do some reading, watch an episode to be aware of the issues in the show. If your teenager is watching it, take the time to have conversations about the content, possibly watching together,” the post read. “Experts feel that the series may be romanticizing suicide and not encouraging teenagers to seek help from family or counselors.”

Dr. Patrice Wolters, a Los Gatos psychologist, thinks that a show portraying suicide could certainly potentially affect a depressed teenager and parents should reach out to their adolescents regarding the content.

“I imagine teens who are very depressed and already contemplating suicide and likely have a plan could be moved to suicide by watching such a show. This is especially true to teen who feel they can not turn to a parent,” she wrote in an email. “This show could open an important door for parents to determine if their teen has any early signs of depression and ask their teen to come to them if they start feeling like they are depressed.”

Jadan McDermott (11), who has watched the entire series, believes that the show does not depict suicide as a panacea to teenage pressures and problems.

“I think the show treads an interesting line on suicide, as there is a mix of the gruesome nature of suicide and the impact it has on people, as well as the slight glorification of Hannah Baker’s death,” he said. “Overall I think the show does a great job in showing the major psychological effects suicide can have on friends, family, teachers, and organizations, as well as alerting the common student of possibly depressed kid.”

With rumours already circulating about a second season, a debate of caution remains in the mental health, parental, and school sphere as the show continues to be streamed by millions of viewers.