Could the fictional suicide in ‘13 Reasons Why’ inspire real-life copycats?
It's the latest title on everyone's binge list. Yet, while Netflix's "13 Reasons Why" has captured the imagination of countless viewers since its March debut, the most tweeted about show in TV history may also be one of its most controversial.
Based on the young adult novel by Jay Asher, the series revolves around Hannah Baker's suicide and the cassette tapes she leaves behind. As you might've guessed, each tape explains one reason that drove her to take such drastic action. Producers behind the series, including Selena Gomez, hoped the fictional suicide would spark conversations about the state of mental health amongst tweens and teens. But school officials across the country are now warning parents about the show in their attempt to prevent copycat suicides.
Jia Tolentino, contributing writer for The New Yorker, writes, "Rather than starting a valuable conversation that could help students who are struggling with mental-health issues, the show, these schools fear, might push students with issues over the edge."
Many administrators believe "13 Reasons Why" could romanticize the idea of suicide among the younger set, and rightfully so. Known as the Werther Effect, researchers have seen spikes in copycat deaths in response to celebrity or fictional suicides throughout history. Vulnerable parties often derive inspiration from examples in the media when seeking justification for their own impulses—and that's precisely what has adults worried right now.
"For kids who are vulnerable, who suffer from depression and anxiety, it can be a trigger for suicidal idealization and that is of course a concern,” Anne Moss Rogers, who lost her 20-year-old son to suicide two years ago, told WTVR. If mainstream depictions of suicidal acts become ingrained in the fabric of modern pop culture, these hypothetical concerns might very well become real-life epidemics.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, researchers noted a 50 percent increase in intentional exposures—the third most common form of suicide—by adolescents between 2012 and 2016. MarketWatch reports that, in 2016 alone, poison centers managed more than 76,500 cases of intentional exposures in young adults. Overall, incoming call volume to poison centers continues to decrease, but cases with more serious clinical outcomes, including death, have increased by 4.3 percent per year since 2000. Some centers, however, have seen an uptick in cases just since the show's premiere.
Lee Cantrell, director of the San Diego division of the California Poison Control System, told MarketWatch that these suspected suicide cases are particularly worrisome. "In our center alone, adolescent suicide and suicidal intent cases for the month of April were the highest we have observed in the past two years. Many of the more recent calls have referenced popular television shows that include messages of suicide, sometimes glamorizing suicide or inspiring deadly copycat behavior.”
One group of teens, however, has made it their mission to counteract the potentially detrimental undertones of "13 Reasons Why" by creating their own mental health awareness campaign. The "13 Reasons Why Not" project aims to provide students of Oxford High School in Michigan with an outlet for their emotions so they can work through their struggles without resorting to self-harm.
Launched in honor of Megan Abbott, a former student who committed suicide in 2013, the group surprised their classmates with audio recordings broadcast over the school's loudspeaker system. Not only did these students share their experiences with bullying, body shaming, and abuse, but they also added how the support they received saved them from the brink. It's with this element of hope that the group aims to inspire those in need to seek the help they require.
Riley Juntti, one of the program's leading organizers, has struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts for years, so this project holds special meaning, as she's an advocate for suicide prevention. "I know this project was extremely emotionally painful for a lot of the participants to go through," she wrote via Twitter. "I just hope someone took the meaning out of it that life is always worth living, there [are] people who love you, and your value is not tarnished by others perceptions."
While "13 Reasons Why" has certainly cleared the path for honest discussions about mental health, entertainment outlets must also acknowledge the negative impact this runaway hit may have on its target market. As Patrick Devitt writes for Scientific American, "...the message that suicide can have simple, or a simple set, of causes, or that suicide represents some type of solution, is unfortunate. There is never one reason why, or even thirteen."
Suicide awareness, in general, stands as another major issue, for global suicide rates have skyrocketed since the Great Recession. Close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, while many more attempt to take their own lives. Subsequently, millions of people are affected by or experience suicide bereavement every year, according to the World Health Organization.
Just as children now have easy access to Netflix and the news, we must also guarantee that they know where to find the resources they'll need when life becomes overwhelming if we are to truly make an impact and save young lives.
If you or someone you know shows signs of suicidal thoughts or tendencies, you're not alone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or message the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 for access to crisis and support services. Suicide isn't your only option. Please seek help before deciding to end your own life.