'13 Reasons Why', which premiered on Netflix on March 31, has sparked a debate about teen mental health and suicide. The show focuses on the fictional 17-year-old Hannah Baker and the 13 audio recordings she leaves behind after her suicide, each addressed to a person that she holds in some way responsible for her decision to take her life. It therefore addresses an often stigmatised and ignored topic, but the backlash has been severe, with the series being accused of glorifying and romanticising suicide.
According to the Samaritans, suicide rates among teens in the UK has been rising over recent years, with 15 in every 100,000 10-24 year old taking their life. Mental health experts have come forward saying the show poses a risk to vulnerable young people, especially those who may experience suicidal thoughts. The show has been accused of failing to properly engage with the nuanced and complex reasons that may lead to suicidal ideation and attempt, including the mental health issues that are often underlying these behaviours.
'Suicide contagion' is the phrased used to describe an increase in suicidal behaviour in those who have witnessed or been affected by a person's suicide. According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, 12 and 13-year olds who have experienced a classmates suicide are five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts. The fear is that a show like '13 Reasons Why' could spark copycat behaviour in young people.
The show's writer Nic Sheff has defended the choice to include such a graphic portrayal of suicide in the show. In Vanity Fair he explains his decision: "From the very beginning, I agreed that we should depict the suicide with as much detail and accuracy as possible. I even argued for it—relating the story of my own suicide attempt to the other writers.' He recalls his own suicide attempt, revealing that what stopped him in his tracks was the memory of a woman whom he had met in rehab and had shared the story of her own failed attempt with him. She had described to him in detail how her body reacted to the pills - vomiting, internal bleeding. The notion of people drifting off quietly from suicide is the image that Sheff believed badly needed addressing. 'The whole story came back to me in heightened detail. It was an instant reminder that suicide is never peaceful and painless, but instead an excruciating, violent end to all hopes and dreams and possibilities for the future. The memory came to me like a shock. It staggered me. And it saved my life."
Many believe the show provides a much needed opportunity to have a valuable conversation with young people about an important topic. In a statement to ABC news, Netflix explained that they sought the advice of health professionals when developing the series: '"From the onset of work on 13 Reasons Why, we have been mindful both of the show's intense themes, and the intended audience." On their site on Monday, they posted the results of an online survey that shows that 80% of parents who watch shows with their teens feel closer to them, and that most teens welcome this interaction from their parents.
So whilst it may be unrealistic, and even unhelpful, to simply tell young people they cannot or should not watch something, it is important to tackle these difficult conversations when the opportunity arises. Parents, teachers, and mental health professionals can use the popularity of the show to educate young people about warning signs of suicide in themselves and in their peers, and to ensure that teens in their care know about the support available to them. The show has already sparked conversations among teens, many of whom feel empowered to discuss how they are feeling. That shouldn't be stopped, it's simply the responsibility of care-givers to make sure they show up to the conversation too.
If you are worried about suicide, the Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 123