New research suggests the Netflix show sparked a wave of teen deaths, but how reliable is it?
The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has been associated with a spike in US teen suicides in the month following its release. New research from the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry claims to reflect that the number of suicides among boys between the ages of 10-17 increased in April 2017 to the highest point that month has seen in the past six years.
The show, centred on a young teenager who dies by suicide after leaving her friends with a series of 13 tapes detailing the reasons why, has been criticised for its particularly graphic scenes and for “glorifying” the issue. A Netflix spokesperson responded to the findings: “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.”
The conflicting research Netflix refers to is from the Social Science & Medicine journal – this different study found that viewers (a pool aged between 18-29) who stopped watching the second season exhibited greater suicide risk and “less optimism about the future” than those who continued to the end of the show. However, others who watched the entire second season reported declines in suicide ideation and self-harm compared to those who did not watch the show at all. To add to that, people who watched the entire second season were also more likely to express interest in helping a suicidal person, especially compared to those who stopped watching the series.
The UK has its own guidelines for presenting suicide in media and news, set out by suicide prevention charity Samaritans – these are not legally binding though, and platforms like Netflix, who operate on a global scale, have no obligation to abide by them. Is there any meaningful way to protect particularly vulnerable people in this country against harmful depictions of suicide in global media? Dazed caught up with Dr Pauline Turnbull, Project Director for the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health at the University of Manchester, to find out.
The entertainment industry has an important role to play in suicide prevention. Read more about how the @Action_Alliance and its partners are working with the entertainment industry to support safe portrayals of suicide: https://t.co/Eq348Sg3oE (via @USAToday) @NIMHgov— Action Alliance (@Action_Alliance) April 30, 2019
THE RELIABILITY OF THE STUDY
Dr Turnbull: The methodology looks sound. We can’t make causal associations with this kind of data, so it’s impossible for the authors to say that the release of 13 Reasons Why definitively caused the subsequent increase in suicides. By comparing the numbers to several previous years of data, and by controlling for expected changes by season, the authors make a reasonable assumption that the release of the programme and the increase in suicide are related.
CURRENT PREVENTATIVE GUIDELINES
Dr Turnbull: I think in the UK we do need to be concerned about the effects of global media and the way people receive their media in general. We have quite clear guidelines for the reporting of suicide, whether that's in newspapers or through fictionalised TV programmes. The Samaritans work with other suicide prevention organisations to develop and update these media guidelines for reporters and anybody creating any kind of media that might depict suicide and the effects of suicide.
HOW 13 REASONS WHY REFLECTS THE GUIDELINES
Dr Turnbull: One of the things with 13 Reasons Why that people within the field of suicide prevention and related research have an issue with is the depiction of suicide as being some kind of a solution to a problem. There’s a real danger of representing suicide in a glamourised way, and when I say that it’s not just about the physical depiction of the act, but the fact that it’s being presented as a valid option, or as having a positive impact for the person who died by suicide. In the case of 13 Reasons Why, the death is portrayed as bringing about some kind of resolution, or having some kind of revenge. It’s really quite dangerous to present suicide as being in any way a valid solution or a positive outcome.
DEPICTING SUICIDE APPROPRIATELY ON TV
Dr Turnbull: If programmes are looking to portray suicide, then they should portray the difficulties of suicide in that it is not a picturesque, calm event, and that it has tragic repercussions. I think there are some programs in the UK that have done that quite well and presented the physicality of it as being quite horrendous, which it is. I’ve recently heard that Hollyoaks, in a storyline about self-harm, brought together the cast and influencers from various social media platforms, along with people who’ve been bereaved by suicide, so that they could have a conversation before filming to make sure that the information that they were putting out there was based on what we know from research, and from people who have personal experience of being affected by suicide. Influencers on social media were well-prepped to carry on the conversation in a responsible way. I think that’s a very positive way to handle these things and I do hear of that happening with several production companies in the UK.
WHAT PAST RESEARCH SAYS
Dr Turnbull: There has been some research on TV programmes as far back as the late 90s from colleagues in Oxford, led by Keith Hawton. They showed both a rise in people using a paracetamol in self-poisoning following a related storyline on Casualty, and an increase in viewers’ understanding of the damaging long-term effects of paracetamol poisoning. Just last year, another study in the US led by David Fink showed increased rates of suicide following the new media reports of the death of Robin Williams in 2016.
WHAT NEW RESEARCH SHOWS
Dr Turnbull: In the next stage of this research, people are looking at how the media can be used in a positive way for suicide prevention. There is increasing evidence that the media can have a suicide-protective effect, by showing people who adopt alternative coping strategies, and don’t turn to suicide as a response to a crisis. The stories of people with lived experience are hugely important in suicide prevention.
GLOBAL MEDIA GUIDELINES
Dr Turnbull: We have these media guidelines in the UK, and we hope that people will abide by them, but we have to be aware that we are using media in a global way, for both news and entertainment. Global media will not necessarily follow our suicide prevention guidelines, but is likely to have global effects on suicide rates. I was pleased to see that Netflix added a content warning and signposted people to support and crisis resources following discussion after the programme aired.
If you haven’t seen 13 Reasons Why you can read our comprehensive guide to the US teen series here, and if you’re struggling with mental health issues and you are based in the UK, you can contact the suicide prevention specialists Samaritans here, or if you are based in the US, here.