Netflix Original “13 Reasons Why” recently began streaming its third season, sparking new conversations about bullying, suicide, and whether or not the show itself is doing these topics justice. Since its release in 2017, the teen drama has seen its fair share of controversies; from its graphic depiction of suicide (which was subsequently edited out) to the way it frames its protagonist’s motivation for killing herself, the show has elicited strong reactions from many who claim that the show has done more harm than good.
Granted, the show has definitely helped parents, teens, and educators speak more openly about the issues the show highlights. Netflix even created a site dedicated to providing viewers with crisis information and mental health resources.
These positives aside, I personally think “13 Reasons Why” missed the mark when it comes to helping prevent teen suicides.
I recently wrote about the power of media over our psychology, and how what we see reflected in media influences us—whether we’re conscious of it or not. Seeing or reading about something graphic like suicide carries inherent risks. Consider the Werther effect, which describes the often high number of copycat suicides after a popular piece of media describes or reports one. This media-influenced “suicide contagion” has led to organizations prescribing guidelines on what to avoid when it comes to reporting suicides.
Unfortunately, Netflix chose not to follow those guidelines when creating “13 Reasons Why,” which may very well have undone the good they were trying to do with the show.
According to one study, in the month following the show’s release, the US saw a 28.9% increase in suicides among children aged 10-17. Although this study points to association and not necessarily causation, it would not surprise me if this spike was another example of the Werther effect following irresponsible reporting.
In addition to its damning association with an increased number of suicides, I also think the show didn’t do itself any favors in the way it portrayed the main character’s motivation for her suicide. Before character Hannah Baker takes her own life, she addresses 13 cassette tapes to each of the 13 people she holds responsible for her death, hence the title of the show. This vindictive, “look-what-you-made-me-do” approach to justifying a suicide is problematic at best, and paints her suicide as an “only-way-out” option. The show doesn’t attempt to address the myriad of factors someone could be facing when contemplating suicide.
Through her actions, Hannah shifts the blame onto her family, friends, and peers, and doesn’t take responsibility for her own death—a behavior pattern that shouldn’t be glorified.
All things considered, “13 Reasons Why” does some things very right. Its story arcs on abortion, toxic masculinity, and sexual assault of men are particularly strong, and they shed a light on these rarely seen sensitive topics. However, its reckless depiction of teen suicide has undoubtedly caused harm, and should be a warning to parents and educators especially to be aware of what their children and teens are watching.
Have you watched 13 Reasons Why? Let me know what you think about the show.