By Renée Riebling
A victim of bullying wants, above all, for the torture to just stop; most victims also would like to see their tormentors pay, or at least understand the agony they caused. Netflix’s hit series 13 Reasons Why, a binge-worthy, suspenseful drama that chronicles the final months of a troubled teen who ends up taking her own life, offers suicide as a satisfying way to achieve both — and a new study indicates it might be having devastating consequences.
The series centers around the already-dead high-schooler Hannah Baker, who left behind seven audiotapes, each side focusing on a person she perceives as to blame for her decision — and each of whom must listen to the tapes, or risk their going public.
As Jon-Patrick Allem, one of the study authors, explained in his Salon piece on Monday, the study examined the rate of suicide-related Google searches in the weeks following the release of the series. Not only did searches signaling suicide awareness (terms such as “suicide prevention”) increase following the release, but, more concerning, so did searches related to suicidal ideation, with terms such as “how to commit suicide,” “suicidal thoughts,” and “how to kill yourself.” In fact, suicide searches were 19 percent higher than expected for the 19 days following the series’ release; that’s about one million more people looking into suicide. Prior research has shown that suicide search trends correlate with actual suicides.
So what went wrong — and how can the show’s creators avoid repeating the same pitfalls in the second season, now in production?
First, what went wrong is that the show painted suicide as an attractive option. “The show appeared to glamorize suicide by making the protagonist exceedingly beautiful and seemingly in control of everyone in her circle,” says Micki Segel, The Child Center of NY’s Associate Director of Youth Development, School Based Mental Health. Plus, “the viewer has to wait until after the last episode to receive good information about how to get help.”
That last point is a bone that many mental health experts have to pick: Why didn’t every episode end — and begin — with a listing of resources for where to find help?
The show also drew too much of a direct link between adverse life events (like bullying and sexual assault) and suicide — something that StopBullying.gov expressly warns against: “Discussing bullying as directly caused by or as the only cause of suicide is not helpful and is potentially harmful.… It perpetuates the false notion that suicide is a natural response to being bullied, which has the dangerous potential to normalize the response and thus create ‘suicide contagion’ among youth.”
Columbia University suicide prevention researcher Madelyn Gould told the New York Post that this definitely came into play in 13 Reasons Why: “My main concern was that suicide was portrayed sort of as the inevitable consequence of life’s adversities rather than depicting what would be an actually more appropriate message, which is that there’s help when you’re feeling suicidal rather than resorting to killing yourself.”
If you find yourself agreeing with these concerns but aren’t sure how the show’s creators can fix these problems in the second season (the actress has already been cast as beautiful, the character already exacted revenge through the tapes, etc.) — don’t despair. There are very concrete steps the show could take to change course and make coming back from the brink a more attractive option than ending your life.
The low-hanging fruit is to post suicide hotline resources before and after each episode, which Netflix has signaled a willingness to do. They can even post issue-specific resources, such as rape hotlines when the issue is sexual assault, and encourage viewers to seek out appropriate support groups, which research has shown to help survivors heal.
Even better: Why not also devote a few minutes at the show’s end to an actual survivor who considered suicide but got help instead — and why she’s glad she did so? They can even take it a step further and introduce a character who contemplated suicide but didn’t go through with it and came out the other side (sort of like they tried to do with Clay’s dad, but with a person closer to the teen years, and more convincingly).
The first season also effectively and heartbreakingly portrayed the agony of Hannah’s parents, who couldn’t stop blaming themselves. Why not have a message to parents, too, about the warning signs, and what to do if they see them?
These are just a few ideas; surely, the minds who came up with such a trailblazing show could think up more on their own.
At the same time, people who live with and work with youth have an obligation to make the most of this teaching moment. Here at The Child Center, our Flushing Clinic is running a 13-week group in response to the series, working with teens on identifying their areas of strength and coping, versus the glamorization of suicide.
“We started this group because I saw a major trend in some of my high-risk clients and how they were being triggered by the show,” says Social Worker Monica Suarez, noting that the clinic also organized a parent workshop on improving communication around the issue. “We take small topics from the show and make it relevant for our teens in NYC.”
We hope Netflix is genuinely interested in doing its part. Following the publication of Allem’s research, Netflix released a written statement that called it “an interesting quasi experimental study,” which was less than encouraging, but the statement also promised the creators would “take everything we learn to heart as we prepare for season 2.”
I want to believe they mean it. They already have a hit show, lots of momentum, and the potential to make a real difference. Let’s hope they, like Hannah, don’t make an irrevocably bad decision because they mistakenly feel it’s the only choice.