Ever since the 2017 debut of popular Netflix drama series 13 Reasons Why, in which a teenage girl kills herself, suicide rates for teens saw a sharp increase in the months following the release, according to a study published on Monday.
The series, 13 Reasons Why is centred on following a 17-year-old high school student whose friend kills herself after facing bulling and sexual harassment. The Netflix drama is based on a 2007 novel of the same name by author Jay Asher.
Researchers at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital conducted a study on individuals ages 10 to 64 between Jan 1, 2017 and Dec 31, 2017, analysing monthly rates of suicides. They said April 2017, the month after the release of the series, had the highest suicide rate among ages 10 to 17 in the past five years. The study also saw the rate of suicides subsequently drop back into the line with recent trends, but remained relatively high in the rest of the year.
However, the researchers said the study had its own limitations and they cannot make a direct casual link between the Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why and the spike seen in suicides rates following the release of the series.
The study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, also found that there were 195 more youth suicide from April to December 2017 versus expectations based on past data.
Jeff Bridge, director of the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s and the lead author of the study said, “Youth may be particularly susceptible to suicide contagion, which can be fostered by stories that sensationalize or promote simplistic explanations of suicidal behavior, glorify or romanticize the decedent, present suicide as a means of accomplishing a goal, or offer potential prescriptions of how-to die by suicide,”
The study also found there were no significant change in suicide rates among individuals ages 18 and older during that period, and the rate of suicides was mostly drive by males. During the year, 2017, a total of 180,655 suicides occurred in the U.S.
To carry out the study, researchers used forecasting models and analysed the monthly rates of suicide during the period. The data was also adjusted to factor in the seasonality and underlying trends on suicide rates.
The increase in the suicide rates following the release of 13 Reasons Why, has alarmed mental health professionals. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States.
Following the criticism, Netflix added a "viewer warning card" before the first episode. Netflix also added language publicizing the website 13reasonswhy.info, which offers resources for people contemplating suicide. A Netflix spokesperson said, “We’ve just seen this study and are looking into the research, which conflicts with last week’s study from the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a critically important topic and we have worked hard to ensure that we handle this sensitive issue responsibly.”
In a survey conducted on individuals ages 18 to 29-years-olds, the Pennsylvania found that young adults, who watched the entire second season of the show "reported declines in suicide ideation and self-harm relative to those who did not watch the show at all."
However, that study also found viewers who stopped watching the second season before the end, "exhibited greater suicide risk and less optimism about the future than those who continued to the end." The results "suggest that a fictional story with a focus on suicidal content can have both harmful and helpful effects," the authors stated.
The National Association of School Psychologists issued a warning statement after the show debuted. "We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies," they said. "Suicide is not a solution to problems."
The second season of the series was released in May 2018 and the third season is expected to be released this year.
"'13 Reasons Why' has been enormously popular and successful. It's engaging content. It is controversial. But nobody has to watch it," Hastings said.
The NIH-based researchers supported the findings, they said these findings, "should serve as a reminder to be mindful of the possible unintended impacts of the portrayal of suicide, and as a call to the entertainment industry and the media to use best practices when engaging with this topic."