Generally, all suicide prevention advocates want to normalize the subject of suicide so that people who are feeling suicidal or have lost a loved one to suicide feel safe talking about it with others. Mass media and entertainment (like television shows and movies) can be conversation starters, with one exception: Suicide prevention organizations want the media to address the topic of suicide in a way that promotes suicide prevention. This is why so many suicide prevention organizations have a problem with Netflix’s show 13 Reasons Why.
Although the show was addictive, 13 Reasons Why poses a real threat to contagion. Not only does the show glorify suicide, but it romanticizes it. The show also does not accurately represent suicide at all. Not only does the show not talk about the real reason why suicide happens—an underlying mental health condition—but the show normalizes suicide with inaccurate reasons on why people decide to take their life. Yes, being slut-shamed, being used, being bullied, being raped, etc. definitely increases the risk of suicide. But in no way do any of those reasons lead to suicide, and we need to stop normalizing these factors as a road leading to suicide.
In Lindsay Holmes article ‘13 Reasons Why’ Led To A Major Increase In Suicide Internet Searches, she discusses the research on the increase in Internet searches about suicide. The searches for “how to commit suicide” dramatically increased 26 percent in the timeframe right after the show premiered, “commit suicide” was up 18 percent, and “how to kill yourself” rose by 9 percent.
There was one consolation, though: search terms like “suicide hotline” and “suicide prevention” rose during the time period of the study (12 percent and 23 percent, respectively).
This is why the media needs to be careful about how they present suicide — because they may inadvertently inspire others to take their own life. Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, said that “when you display suicide as revenge or glorified or in a sensational manner, there will be problems for some and those can be deadly.”
This is why 13 Reasons Why poses a threat contagion—because the whole show was glorifying and romanticizing suicide as an act of revenge.
Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, expressed her concerns in the Newsweek article about contagion from 13 Reasons Why. Moutier discusses how the themes in the show are exceptionally relatable to the youth, and that the show displays suicide as the solution. According to the article, research shows that “young people are especially prone to suicide contagion, and that media depictions can inspire ‘copycats.’”
Julie Cerel, president-elect of the American Association of Suicidology found that one suicide can affect 135 people, and a third of those people “will likely experience a severe life disruption.” This is why it is so frightening that a show glorified suicide. The show reached millions of people and it will affect some more than others.
Moutier also criticized the show for focusing on “life stressors while largely ignoring a main risk factor for suicide—an underlying mental health condition.” Nowhere in the show did they talk about depression and anxiety or mental health. The show focused on how people—13 of them—can be the reasons why someone ends their life, which is not true.
I think there are two very important messages to learn from this situation. One, Moutier explains that anytime the topic of suicide is raised, it must be paired with “a message of prevention and hope.” And two, Reidenberg said that people need to know that mental illness can be treated and “people can get better and go on living their life fully.”
Although 13 Reasons Why failed at conveying both of these messages, especially considering how the show ended with what seems to be another possible suicide, we encourage all media sites to follow the World Health Organization’s suicide prevention guidelines. Suicide should be in the media, but the focus of suicide should be on prevention.