13 Reasons Why: Teen suicides rose 13% in three months after Netflix show released, study shows

‘Findings appear to point to the need for engagement by public health and suicide experts to engage with members of the entertainment industry to prevent further harmful suicide portrayals’

By: Alex Matthews-King, courtesy of The Independent, published May 29, 2019

The number of teenagers who took their own lives rose significantly after a popular Netflix series, criticised for its graphic depiction of a 17-year-old character taking her own life was broadcast, a study has said.

In the three months after 13 Reasons Why was released on the streaming channel in March 2017, ‘suicide deaths among 10 to 19 year old’s in the US rose by 13 per cent, researchers from the Medical University of Vienna found.

This was nearly 100 more suicide deaths than would have been predicted in the same period if historical trends had continued, according to the study published in the journal Jama Psychiatry

“Our findings appear to point to the need for engagement by public health and suicide experts to engage with members of the entertainment industry to prevent further harmful suicide portrayals,” the authors wrote. 

The backlash to the show could have created a “contagion by media” effect, which meant the issues affected a much wider audience, they warned. 

Set in the aftermath of the suicide of high school student Hannah Baker, 13 Reasons Why revealed that she took her own life after she was raped by a fellow student and her concerns are ignored by her school’s guidance counsellor.

Suicide prevention organisations criticized the show. They said its portrayal of suicide which went against best practice guidelines aimed at preventing further deaths.

“In particular, concerns were raised the graphic depiction of Hannah cutting her wrists in the bathtub, and the implication seeking help for suicidal thoughts is futile, might trigger imitation acts and additional suicides,” said lead author Dr Thomas Niederkrotenthaler. 

The study found deaths by suicide increased by more 22 per cent among teenage girls, compared to 12 per cent among boys.

The biggest increase was seen in deaths by hanging, the study said. However, the authors said they could not rule out a rise in cutting.

This contrasts with another piece of research which found suicide rates rose the most among boys. 

A study from Ohio State University last month reported suicide rates for 10 and 17 year-old’s in the month following the show’s release, spiked to 30 per cent above the average for the previous five years.

Both studies used data from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, America’s leading national public health institute. 

The authors of the latest research said their findings should be interpreted with caution as it was not possible to say whether those who died watched the show or if it was the sole cause.

But their findings did show suicide deaths rose 15 per cent in the first month after the show’s release and continued for the three months where interest – based on Instagram and Twitter posts – was at its peak.

Additionally, the rise was not seen in any older groups, where the shows themes of school issues, bullying, and adolescence may be less relevant.

Previous studies have not found robust evidence of suicides increasing in the wake of prominent media depictions, but they said that “13 Reasons Why” was a “media phenomenon” and the backlash may have heightened awareness further.

Netflix says it consulted with clinical psychologists on the subject matter of the show and included warnings about its content in every episode.

Video messages from the cast warning about the content and advice on where to turn featured in season 2. 

The show’s creator Brian Yorkey has disputed the findings of the study and pointed to other research which has shown it helped people understand suicide and may reduce suicidal thoughts in those who watch to the end.

A Netflix spokesperson said: Experts agree that there’s no single reason people take their own lives – and that rates for teenagers have tragically been increasing for years. 13 Reasons Why tackles the uncomfortable reality of life for many young people today and we’ve heard from them, as well as medical experts, that it gave many viewers the courage to speak up and get help.

They added that the latest two studies “contradict each other” as one showed a rise in male suicides and the other in females despite using the same CDC data – although comparing different time frames. The studies must also be considered against an overall rising trend in suicides which also saw spikes in November 2016 and March 2017 – for girls and boys respectively – before the show launched, they said.