Suicide, particularly amongst young people, is incredibly tragic—but also generally preventable. And while media that deals with suicide is vital to our understanding and discussion of the issue, it can also do more good than harm when it’s not handled sensitively.
Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s book of the same name, ostensibly falls into the camp of Nuanced Discussion Starter For a Difficult Teen Issue. Dig a little deeper, however, and it’s hard to ignore how the show benefits from an ugly, overly-simplistic portrayal of a deeply troubling psychological issue.
Numerous studies have shown that portraying suicide graphically leads to copycat suicides in real life—an unfortunate side effect we’re already seeing with viewers of 13 Reasons Why. Peruvian teenager Franco Alonso Lazo Medrano recently took his own life and left behind recordings for the people he blamed for his suicide—sound familiar?
And two California teens committed suicide in April just days after watching the Netflix show. “I feel it’s dangerous for that small percentage of young adults [for whom] the show can become a trigger, and I feel as if the show gives only one alternative for cyber bullying and other teenage issues,” said the uncle of one of the victims.
Will every depressed teen who watches the show commit suicide? Of course not. But it’s disingenuous to portray the show as some arbitrator of positive discussion on this difficult issue—particularly when the show creators reached out to an expert on suicide before the show aired…and then ignored all the advice they were given.
“This show violates the number one principle of fictional depictions of suicide, which has the potential to cause copycat suicides,” noted Benjamin Shain, MD, PhD. The series, Shain adds, “glorifies the suicide, and it explains [it] as something to do with revenge. It makes it sound desirable, and there is no mention of psychopathology or depression. And the helpers or counselors are depicted as doofuses, so it doesn’t encourage kids to ask for help from the professionals.”
There’s no question that we need to engage in a conversation about suicide and that media has the opportunity to be a very real and important part of that conversation. But it’s also important to note that suicide in particular has its own set of consequences based on how we conduct that conversation. Choosing one incident to blame for suicide—or even 13 individuals—is disrespectful to the very real people who deal with depression and other mental illnesses every day and understand that the reasons behind wanting to harm oneself are varied and complicated. Slapping a few warning labels on a show that ultimately glorifies taking revenge on the people who have wronged you by killing yourself does very little to address a very real problem.
I have no doubt that some people will find solace in a show like 13 Reasons Why—and more power to them. But we can’t ignore that portrayals like this can do far more damage than good for an already vulnerable population. Being a teenager is hard enough; media that encourages wallowing in the melodrama of blame instead of offering life-saving support just adds fuel to the fire for people who are already struggling.