A newly released study shows a connection between the popular Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" and suicide risks in teenagers treated in psychiatric emergency departments at the hospital.
The show, commonly referred to as "13RW," gained vast popularity and attention among young adults since its premiere in 2017. The story begins with a 17-year-old high school student who, before committing suicide, recorded 13 audio tapes that discuss 13 different contributing factors to why she took her own life. The story then follows the ensuing drama among her peers in high school as they find the different tapes and discover more about her life.
The show was also met with extreme backlash and controversy from mental health experts, parents, and educators alike for its depiction of mental illness and suicide, which has been criticized as glorification or romanticization.
That's exactly why researchers at Michigan Medicine wanted to study "13 Reasons Why" and any potential contributions to suicide risks in teens already experiencing suicidal thoughts or mental illnesses such as depression.
Researchers surveyed 87 teens, out of which 43 reported they had watched at least one episode of the show. Of the 43 who watched, about half said it heightened their risk of suicide. The study also found that most teens watched the shows alone and weren't likely to discuss their reactions with a parent.
The majority of teens who reported that the show increased their suicide risk also said that they strongly identified with the main character, Hannah Baker, who committed suicide after recording audio tapes about what influenced her decision.
And while one single study doesn't confirm that the show increases suicide risks in all teens, it still presents extremely troubling information. We already know that movies, TV shows, and other media have an extreme influence on how we perceive topics such as mental illness and suicide. And we already know that young adults and teenagers are especially impressionable just by nature, too. These facts, along with the study's results, confirm that shows such as "13 Reasons Why" CAN have a serious impact on vulnerable youth and how they understand themselves, others, and difficult topics like mental health and suicide. The impact is even more daunting considering how many teenagers avoid talking with parents, teachers, or other adults in their life about such topics.
Mental illness, suicide, bullying, and sexual assault are already highly stigmatized topics in our society that are often just shoved under the rug due to ignorance, stereotypes, fear, or the general lack of knowledge and how to manage them. If we never talk about these things, how can we be surprised when they continue to happen? When we act like it doesn't exist, the media becomes the only figure to characterize and shape subjects like mental illness and suicide - and the media is notorious for stereotyping, romanticizing, glamorizing, or misrepresenting many real-life issues, including mental health. Teenagers are specifically in need of support and direction from parents, counselors, or other adults but are arguably the least likely to ever seek it out.
That's why it's so, so important that conversations about mental health, suicide, bullying, and sexual assault are normalized in our society. Everyone - especially young people - needs to accurately understand their mental health and how to deal with issues like mental illnesses, suicidal thoughts, or bullying. When we teach people that it's okay and normal to struggle with mental health and thoughts of suicide, they become more comfortable reaching out to others and seeking treatment. Leading people to the resources and help they need lets them know that there IS help out there, and that suicide is NOT the answer or solution to "get back" at people who bullied or assaulted them, like the main character in "13RW" suggests. Mental health is something we ALL deal with, so we all deserve to have an understanding and a clear path to seeking help.
Make sure the people around you - whether those are your friends, family, children, peers at school, or co-workers - know that it is OKAY to struggle with mental health or suicidal thoughts. No one should be ashamed of having a mental illness or of having been bullied or sexually assaulted in the past. Make sure others know that struggling with suicide risks or mental health problems doesn't mark the end of their lives and won't last forever, too; and there are plenty of resources and treatment options to help. Starting an open, honest conversation in your community about such topics will normalize discussion and acceptance and end the harmful stigma that the media paints around mental health.
Visit credible websites such as the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, MentalHealth.gov, and Mental Health America for facts, educational tools, resources, and guides for discussing mental health and available resources in your community.
Visit The "#YouDefineYou" Project for additional resources for mental health, suicide prevention, bullying, sexual assault, addiction, and other situations.
To learn more about the study, click here.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.