The buzzy new Netflix show 13 Reasons Why is the streaming site’s most popular show on social media (research firm Fizziology told Refinery29 that it generated 3,585,110 tweets during its first week), and many are calling it a force for mental health and suicide awareness. For instance, some people have praised the show, saying the fictional setting (a safe, small-town-ish city) shows this could happen at any school and that sometimes a number of factors lead people to feel that suicide is their only option—it’s often not just one. Others have said it helps raise awareness about warning signs to look out for.
The show, which is executive produced by Selena Gomez, is based on the 2011 best-selling Jay Asher book by the same name. In it, teen Hannah Baker leaves behind 13 cassette tapes explaining in explicit detail why she chose to kill herself. Each tape is dedicated to one of Hannah’s peers, calling them out for the things they have done to her and ways they’ve caused her harm. 13 Reasons Why covers a wide variety of serious topics, including bullying, rape, slut shaming, depression, and, of course, suicide.
Asher told EW recently that Hannah lived in his original ending for the book—she was supposed to have overdosed on pills but then was saved at the hospital when her stomach was pumped. But he says he realized that death was necessary to raise awareness of the consequences of suicide. “Once I realized that the message of the story would be stronger and that it would definitely be more of a cautionary tale, I felt that was definitely the way to go,” he told EW. In talking about the show’s finale, Asher also told EW that they purposefully made the suicide scene in the show graphic—for the purpose of driving home the point that her choice to end her life was a bad one. “We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide,” he said.
But experts are deeply concerned that the book and the show may have the opposite of that intended awareness-raising effect, and may impart viewers with the exact wrong takeaway lessons. Ultimately, the entire premise of the story goes against all accepted best practices for how to address suicide responsibly in the mass media. ReportingOnSuicide.org is home to The Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, which the authors created by working with with “several international suicide prevention and public health organizations, schools of journalism, media organizations and key journalists as well as Internet safety experts,” per their About page.
These Recommendations exist because over 50 research studies worldwide have found the way newspapers and news media covers suicide can have an impact on public health—when journalists discuss suicides in the news in particular ways, it can actually lead to a greater risk for suicides. Per the Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, journalists are taught to follow certain specific rules when discussing suicide:
- Don’t sensationalize the suicide.
- Don’t talk about the contents of the suicide note, if there is one.
- Don’t describe the suicide method.
- Report on suicide as a public health issue.
- Don’t speculate why the person might have done it.
- Don’t quote or interview police or first responders about the causes of suicide.
- Describe suicide as “died by suicide” or “completed” or “killed him/herself,” rather than “committed suicide.”
- Don’t glamorize suicide.
13 Reasons Why effectively violates every single one of those guidelines.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and each year more than 44,000 Americans die by suicide. The potential for impact on people who are already at risk for suicide is real. Of course, fiction isn’t the same as journalism. But the experts we spoke with said that all mass media has the potential to have this effect on vulnerable people—and that’s especially true for teenagers.
John Mayer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who works with suicidal teens and author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells SELF that the show is “a sad exploitation of a devastating problem among our youth. I don’t see the value in it except to sensationalize teenage suicide,” he says.
Media is powerful, especially among younger demographics that are drawn to the show, Miami-area licensed clinical psychologist Erika Martinez, Psy.D., tells SELF. “For millennials and Generation Z, what they see in media is canon,” she says. “It can certainly glamorize suicide and lead to this copycat sort of effect.”
Phyllis Alongi, MS, NCC, LPC, ACS, clinical director at the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, tells SELF that her organization “does not agree” with many of the aspects portrayed in the show, such as romanticizing suicide, including graphic details or depictions of the suicide, inadequate and ineffective assistance from the school counselor, memorialization of the person who killed herself, and placing blame and insufficient treatment. “Hannah’s story is fictional, tragic, and not the norm,” she says. And unfortunately, teens might not recognize that by watching it.
13 Reasons Why is essentially one long suicide note that makes it seem as though, by killing yourself, you and your problems will not be forgotten. The show is narrated by a boy named Clay who is in love with Hannah and, consequently, she’s held up as a “goddess” figure (Clay watches her walk into a party in slo-mo—the kind of moment every girl wants a guy to have about her). Hannah is also a gifted poet, likable and relatable, and deeply misunderstood—and her peers keep doing horrible things to her that get worse and worse as the story goes on.
Hannah uses her suicide and the tapes to get revenge on, and gain control over, those who hurt and violated her. The tapes are like fuel for her power, boosting her posthumous status to become “the girl who completed suicide.” Hannah even calls out her guidance counselor, Mr. Porter, for failing to help her find a reason to live—essentially blaming someone else for a decision that she ultimately made for herself.
Teenagers are especially susceptible to seeing suicide depicted in such a way, and taking dangerous and inaccurate lessons from it—such as that suicide is a viable coping mechanism when you feel hopeless or in despair; that it’s a glamorous way to get the attention you’ve been seeking (by never being forgotten) or the revenge you’ve been dreaming of (by getting back at people who’ve wronged you); and that parents and guidance counselors are inept, out of touch, and unable to help you when you’re in trouble. “When we are [teenagers], our coping mechanisms are not developed, so we are left to rely on primitive defense mechanisms and our most primitive is avoidance,” Mayer says. “Suicide is the ultimate act of avoidance—avoiding life.” Knowing or hearing about suicide puts the thoughts of it in someone’s mind and creates the possibility that it’s a real choice, Mayer says, which is why he thinks the show is so exploitive.
The truth is that the show is out there, so if you have a teenager who’s watching it (and if you have a teenager, they probably are), the best option is to be super honest and direct with them about how the show is problematic and unrealistic, and also be open about what other more important lessons a teenager can take from it. Lessons such as: Suicide is a really bad way to cope with things that are going wrong in life—and there are more effective ways to solve your problems; that you really hurt people who love you if you kill yourself; and that suicide is final, and the opposite of glamorous. “If teens are going to watch 13 Reasons Why, we need to utilize the experience by focusing on suicide prevention,” Alongi says.