If you haven’t heard about the Netflix original show 13 Reasons Why (based on the book Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher), it might be a good time to acquaint yourself with the premise of the show. If you have a teenager, they have probably watched this show or are hearing all of their friends talking about it at school. 13 Reasons Why is a story about a 17-year-old teen named Hannah Baker who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes for the 13 people that she says contributed to the decision to kill herself. The show has started a national conversation about teen suicide and how it has been portrayed in this show.
The creators of the show and the author of the book have shared that they intentionally made choices in filming to demonstrate that suicide is real and that actions have consequences. They defend their choices to show graphic sexual assault scenes and a graphic suicide scene in a show geared towards teens and young adults.
The show has certainly sparked conversation about suicide, why it happens and how it impacts survivors of suicide. However, there are many things about the way the show presents suicide that concern me as a mental health professional. My primary concern is that teenagers who are binge watching this show on Netflix do not have the ability to process what is accurate and what is inaccurate about how suicide is portrayed in this series.
Though you can not “catch” a mental illness, suicidal contagion is something that is well documented by research. Suicidal contagion is a very real phenomenon in which publicity surrounding a suicide is linked to a subsequent increase in suicide, especially among teenagers and young adults. Fictional dramatizations, such as the one in 13 Reasons Why, have been associated with a risk in suicide, as demonstrated by multiple researchers. It is important not to glamorize suicide or to make it seem like a simple solution for escape.
The way that media covers suicide can increase the rate of suicide if the suicide is not discussed in a responsible manner. This risk increases when the suicide method is described, or in the case of 13 Reasons Why, is shown in an extremely graphic scene that plays out as a how-to guide for suicide. Another concern is that imagining that you can kill yourself to get back at people who wronged you "feels like an adolescent fantasy," according to Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the JED Foundation.
13 Reasons Why has started a conversation about teen suicide and introduced a way for parents, teachers and counselors to talk about suicide in a way that may feel more accessible to teens. Talking openly about thoughts of suicide and about emotional distress is okay and will not increase someone’s risk of suicide if they are already having suicidal thoughts. There are resources available for anyone who is having suicidal thoughts. However, 13 Reasons Why shows Hannah reaching out to a school counselor who is unable to identify that she is struggling or help her. This is not an accurate portrayal of mental health providers and discourages teens from reaching out if they need help.
13 Reasons Why can be dangerous for teenagers to watch without any support or talking points with an adult. The show is not an accurate portrayal of what happens when a teenager commits suicide. It is a fantasy of an adolescent who is able to speak from the grave though audio recordings and find a way to blame others for her suicide. Though there are other students who are shown bullying Hannah or treating her badly, there is no exploration of the underlying mental health issues that Hannah may be experiencing. Of course, it is an important lesson that we should always treat others with care and kindness because we do not know what they are going through. However, there is nothing romantic, glamorous, or justified about committing suicide.
13 Reasons Why is not reality. It is a scripted TV show based on imagined events. Though I believe that teenagers have the ability to separate reality from fiction, for a teenager who is experiencing suicidal thoughts and mental health issues, this separation may be more difficult. It is important to treat watching 13 Reasons Why with care for those who may be at risk for suicide.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. 1-800-273-8255