The premise of Netflix’s suicide drama sparked criticism from the mental health community before the show even aired, but after the episodes were released, researchers found an increase in search results for suicide-related phrases. Angela Waters takes a look at how a fictional TV show can become a real danger.
In a letter published on the JAMA Network, researchers called for Netflix to change its show 13 Reasons Why, saying that the portrayal of a high school girl’s suicide could spark copycat attacks. After the show aired, search queries for suicide rose by roughly 20 percent.
While some popular terms focused on prevention, searches for other phrases such as “how to commit suicide,” “commit suicide,” and “how to kill yourself” were “significantly higher.”
But it is not just this generation that needs trigger warnings. Cases of copycat suicides date back to 1774 when German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the main character takes his own life. Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 drug overdose also inspired others to do the same.
Because TV shows, books and news reports can increase the likelihood that someone will kill themselves in a similar way, medical groups, such as the World Health Organization, have come out with guidelines on how to responsibly portray suicide. They include: “don’t publish photographs or suicide notes,” “don’t report specific details of the method used,” and “don’t appropriate blame.”
The Netflix show does exactly the opposite. The story is narrated by the girl who commits suicide through tapes that she leaves behind as a sort of suicide note to call out the different people that she blames for her decision to end her life. It also shows exactly how she kills herself and the moment of her death.
This has prompted mental health professionals and educators to advise against the show for young people.
“We want to make you aware of a book and Netflix series causing concern in the educational community. Netflix has released a new series, 13 Reasons Why, that may harm students who struggle with mental health challenges,” the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board said in a letter to parents. “Based on a young adult novel, the fictional series depicts events leading to death by suicide of a young character. It has graphic content related to suicide, glamorization of suicidal behavior and negative portrayals of helping professionals, which may prevent youth from seeking help.”
Two Sides of the Story
While critics see the show as a how-to guide for killing yourself, fans of the show have a different take.
The show’s producer, Selena Gomez, defended the series on morning talk shows as a necessary conversation starter on bullying in a time when young people are facing unprecedented attacks.
“I understood that we were going into something that is difficult,” Gomez said. “But these kids today are so exposed to things that I would never even have comprehended when I was eight. My cousin teaches third grade and they’re doing things and saying things that I couldn’t even fathom. I feel like if this is what we are going to talk about, we might as well do it in a way that’s going to be honest, it’s going to be real, and it stays true to the book.”
Many are hesitant to start censoring creators based on the notion that any portrayal of suicide could lead to a person imitating that behavior.
“The idea of the World Health Organization giving guidelines on how people should tell stories needs to be addressed,” Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture, told Highsnobiety. “I can see the American Medical Association giving guidelines for how much saturated fat is bad for you, but the idea of telling people how to tell stories, especially to avoid copycats, if we took that idea seriously we would run into some really interesting problems.”
Thompson recalled a particular reading assignment at his Illinois high school, which also centered on teenagers committing suicide: Romeo and Juliette.
“Would we take Romeo and Juliette off the curriculum?” he said. “Much great literature is filled with really bad behavior, if we make the assumption that people consuming these stories are going to behave the way that the characters behave, we have to take a lot of our greatest stories off the shelves.”
Still, he was hesitant to recommend 13 Reasons Why to a young teenage audience.
Part of the reason the age group seems more vulnerable to this kind of suggestion is that certain centers in the brain for judgment have yet to fully form and teenagers are already prone to suicidal thoughts.
The research organization Child Trends reported that in 2015 17 percent of high school-aged kids thought about suicide, while nine percent actually attempted suicide.
“I think high school students are more dramatic as a group,” teacher at Algonquin Regional High School Maura Morrison told Highsnobiety. “That is probably the point in life at which you are most dramatic. If there is someone who wants to get attention it is dangerous to show them that this is a way to do it.”
Not the Only Netflix Show in Hot Water
Another Netflix program that has come under fire for supposedly promoting self-harm is the eating order drama To The Bone, in which Lilly Collins plays a young woman struggling with anorexia.
While the writer, Marti Norton, and the lead actresses are recovering anorexics, critics say the film is still putting too pretty a face on the disease, which could inspire people to emulate the character’s behavior.
The British national eating disorder organization, Beat, put out a warning about the film urging anyone that might be at risk of an eating disorder to “think very carefully” about whether or not they should watch the film.
It is difficult to create a fictional work about self-harm that maintains the artistic standards for film and television while also showing a balanced picture of the realities that come with it. And any role played by a beautiful young actress will likely garner some admiration and emulation. But there is still a line between reality and entertainment.
“When Rachel had that haircut on Friends tens of thousands of women got their hair cut that way,” Thompson said. “Those sort of things media can have a huge impact on because they are easy decisions. When we are talking about a behavior as powerful as taking ones life, I am not one to say these things can’t have an impact, but I am also reluctant to say we should stop telling these stories or highly regulate how they are told for fear of copycats. One hopes that the people writing and producing these things are doing it with sincerity.”
Next up, here’s why you’re about to see a lot more “micro-influencers” on Instagram.
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