Why Netflix’s breakout hit is a huge problem and an opportunity for mental health.
Does 13 Reasons Why encourage and exploit suicide, or does it minimize the danger by addressing it? That’s the debate as Netflix announces that the controversial teen drama is being renewed for a second season. The show is a breakaway hit: While the streaming giant doesn’t release viewership numbers, outside analysis indicates that it’s the service’s most-tweeted-about production. Reviewers have mostly treated the show kindly — it posts an impressive 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But, given that the inciting action of the show (and the 2007 young adult novel it’s based on) is the suicide of a young girl named Hannah Baker, the show has been criticized for glamorizing suicide and self-harm. Though it debuted just on March 31, the superintendent of one Florida school district has said that they’ve seen a big uptick in self-harm among their students, with 13 Reasons often cited as a primary reason why.
The reality of these things is that you can’t say that the show is roundly “good” or “bad” for teens, says Guy Diamond, PhD, who directs Drexel University’s Family Intervention Science program for depressed, substance-abusing, or suicidal adolescents. When suicide is sensationalized, it can lead to copycat behavior among the more vulnerable kids who are already thinking about suicide; after all, the show portrays Hannah getting immortalized by her act, a sort of revenge on her tormentors, and lots of people thinking about her. The show’s protagonist, Clay Jensen, seems to spend every waking hour piecing together the puzzle that his love interest left for him in the show’s titular cassette tapes.
But, with the warning that his opinion is “a little controversial,” Diamond adds that “for a lot of people, the stigma of mental health was challenged by the show.” The cultural narratives saying that high school isn’t that bad; if you were a little tougher, bullying wouldn’t bother you — these issues are directly taken on by the series. “This show got people talking about all that in a way that my prevention efforts rarely accomplish,” he says. The messy truth is that for some communities, it’s helpful; for vulnerable kids, it reinforces negative behavior.
The research on media’s influence on self-harm goes back decades. A lot of it has to do with what academics call “contagion”: if you see someone else do something, you’re more likely to do it yourself. A 1973 study of New York City found that during periods of newspaper strikes — when there couldn’t be any reporting on suicides by default — fewer young women attempted suicide. A 1995 paper found that teens who had seen two more depictions of suicide on television were had a higher history of suicide attempts. A 2010 paper found that when a girl’s best friend purposefully injured herself — cutting, for instance — she was much more likely to herself. And in what might be the closest analog to 13 Reasons, a 1999 U.K. paper used data from 49 emergency departments after the medical drama Casualty aired an episode where a character attempted suicide via overdose. The researchers found that reports of self-poisoning went up 17 percent in the week after the episode aired. And 20 percent of those deliberate overdosers said that the show had influenced their decision.
In a statement released last week, the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology said that 13 Reasons does a poor job modeling how to find help to its audience: while Hannah does go to a counselor, she’s let down by his ineptitude. Mitch Prinstein, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina and the society’s president, tells Thrive Global that given the theme of the show, every episode should have a message saying that talking to a mental health professional is critical for any child thinking about hurting themselves. Slate’s Marissa Martinelli notes that the show skirts the issue of depression, even though mental illness plays a part in 90 percent of all suicide — instead placing blame for “Hannah’s suicide on the actions or inaction of those around her.”
Still, Prinstein says, the popularity of the show does speak to a current in the zeitgeist. Teens rarely see their lives accurately represented in the media — and their smartphone-laden coming-of-age is so different than that of the people who are now adults. “Adolescents really appreciate seeing a mirror put up to their own lives,” he says.
The ugly truth is that for many, the teen years are an ugly, toxic experience — to the point that noted essayist Rebecca Solnit called us to “Abolish High School” in a 2015 column for Harpers. The statistics are staggering. Suicide is now the second-most frequent cause of death among American teens, a rate that’s been driven up by the increasing rate of suicide among teen girls. One in five teens seriously considers suicide every year, and about 1,700 teens die by suicide annually. A 2011 study found that suicide rates fall during the summer, when kids are off. That study’s authors reason that during the summer, kids have more freedom to select the people they hang out with, avoiding the bullying and negative social interactions that pervade so many kids’ academic experiences. Relatedly, kids who have been bullied are at least twice as likely to report thinking about killing themselves. Overall, teen mental illness is pervasive: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2015, an estimated 3 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 — or 12.5 percent — had a major depressive episode in the past year.
For its part, 13 Reasons does include the PSA-style “Beyond The Reasons” as an epilogue to the first season, where the cast, mental health professionals, and executives — including executive producer Selena Gomez — discuss the difficult issues brought up in the show. In a column for Vanity Fair, show writer Nic Sheff, who attempted his own suicide via pills and whiskey, explained that his intent with depicting Hannah’s suicide so vividly was to thrust difficult issues into the cultural conversation. It’s a conviction that comes from his growing up in San Francisco in the 1980s, when many family and friends were lots in the AIDS epidemic.
“Back then, H.I.V. seemed to be a death sentence, and activists had coined a slogan: silence = death,” he explains. “When it comes to suicide, I believe the message should be exactly the same. Facing these issues head-on — talking about them, being open about them — will always be our best defense against losing another life. I’m proud to be a part of a television series that is forcing us to have these conversations, because silence really does equal death.”
Diamond, the Drexel researcher, says that Netflix could be more aggressive with sharing interviews and links around mental health resources to viewers. He also sees some schools using the show as an opportunity to have conversations, rather than just getting overwhelmed by its popularity. A bolder hope would be for the drama itself to serve as a better role model. In season one, he says, “there’s no intervention, no options, no therapy, no struggles with how to save kids, how parents could do better, how schools could do better,” he says. For the second season, which has been in the works for weeks, he hopes that the producers will have heard from the mental health community, and find ways to spin stories of adolescent resilience that are “as compelling as the gruesome details of suicide.”