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Study Says Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why May Have Increased the Risk of Suicide in At-Risk Teens

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Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why has been controversial since it first premiered in 2017. The series, based on the bestselling YA novel by Jay Asher, follows the story of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who receives a series of cassette tapes from his friend/unrequited crush, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who has since killed herself. Over the course of the first season, Hannah discusses the events that led to her suicide, which include bullying, sexual harassment, rape, and betrayal.

The melodramatic series drew controversy in its first season, mainly for its romanticized depiction of suicide and lack of content warnings for sexual assault and violence. Suicide awareness groups were quick to call out the show, with Dan Reidenberg, executive director for Suicide Voices of Education (SAVE), expressing concerns that “The show actually doesn’t present a viable alternative to suicide, the show doesn’t talk about mental illness or depression, doesn’t name those words. My thoughts about the series are that its probably done more harm than any good.”

Now, a new study from the University of Michigan suggests that the series may have a detrimental effect on teens already at risk. The study, published in the journal Psychiatric Services, surveyed 87 teens who were admitted to psychiatric emergency facilities for “suicide-related concerns” in 2017 and 2018. 49% of teens in the survey (of mostly girls) had watched at least one episode, while 84% of those had watched it by themselves.

Depressed teens who exhibited suicidal ideation where more likely to identify with Hannah’s character, and over half of the viewers said they thought that watching the show increased their risk of suicide. The series does play into the “romantic suicide” tropes and the revenge fantasy of blaming those left behind in the wake of a suicide.

Dr. Victor Hong was moved to conduct the study after what he calls a “significant uptick in terms of the volume of teens coming in with suicidal issues” who name-checked the show. He said, “Some of them had even said that it was a real factor in why their suicidality or depression had worsened.”

13 Reasons Why tried to course-correct in their second season, with intro videos featuring cast members out of character, discussing the potentially triggering topics of each episode.

Granted, the results of this study should not inspire panic. The survey was conducted among teens already hospitalized for suicidal ideation, as opposed to a larger survey group, and the study does not draw a correlation between teen viewers and suicide at large. What it does show is that teens already vulnerable to depression and suicidal thoughts may experience a worsening of their symptoms of anxiety and depression.

If anything, the study shows the importance of trigger and content warnings ahead of sensitive subject matter. While these warnings are fodder for conservatives as proof of the “sensitivity” of liberals, their real purpose is to protect vulnerable audiences from further trauma.

It’s also important to include access to mental health services and resources, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255.

(via Buzzfeed, image: Netflix)

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Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.