Studies: Netflix Series ’13 Reasons Why’ Linked To High Suicide Rates. Need For Better Media Accountability?

Netflix and other media platforms often lean towards sensational, attention-grabbing programming. As in the case of 13 Reasons Why, however, the real life effects can be devastating. Isn’t it time we demanded more accountability from the media?

Netflix and other media platforms often lean towards sensational, attention-grabbing programming. As in the case of 13 Reasons Why, however, the real life effects can be devastating. Isn’t it time we demanded more accountability from the media?

When the first seasons of 13 Reasons Why premiered in 2017, there were concerns that the show romanticized suicide. In fact, the suicide of the lead character, Hannah Baker, was portrayed graphically; leading experts to question if the series actually did more harm than good.

A recent study shows that these concerns, unfortunately, may have been well-founded. A study supported by the US National Institute of Mental Health, has found a correlation between suicide rates between young adults (ages 10-17) and the release of the show in April 2017.The researchers found that the suicide rates significantly higher in the months of April, June, and December 2017 — a 28.9% increase, which in hard numbers roughly equals an additional estimated 195 suicide deaths.

The link is not as simple as it looks though — correlation does not automatically imply causation, and as this article discusses, that causation can be very difficult to prove. However, as is pointed out in the same article, “it would be consistent with the current best theory on suicide ideation for 13 Reasons Why to lead to increased suicides among young people watching the show.”

In fact, following the criticism after the release of the first season, Netflix had made an attempt to mitigate the effects of the show by adding extensive resources and an after show, Beyond The Reasons, on suicide prevention, that airs after the final episode in each season. However, doctors believe that this isn’t enough.

While all this reeks of irresponsible programming, the show’s creator Brian Yorkey and writer Nic Sheff, have argued that not showing the suicide would have been irresponsible as it would have contributed to the stigma and silence around suicide. There is a need for a conversation about sensitive topics like suicide, sexual assault and school shootings –all of which are dealt with in the show.

The point that the creators and Netflix seem to be missing is that no one is asking for silence. Critics are only asking for the show to be more mindful about how it chooses to discuss these topics –a bingeable soap opera format is hardly the best way to do it.

As psychologists have pointed out, a better way to create awareness and offer help, would be to show ways to recognize risk factors or portray prevention techniques. If this sounds boring, let me point you to the show One Day At A Time, a drama-comedy featuring a Cuban-American family, in which multiple characters struggle realistically with mental health issues. It is entertaining and fun, and yet manages to deal with sensitive issues in a positive, affirming manner. It honestly and openly discusses the difficulties of having to take medication, of seeking counselling and therapy, of speaking to loved ones about mental illness etc. It offers coping techniques through relatable characters who use these techniques themselves on screen. The show has helped me personally, by teaching me ways to manage my own anxiety and overthinking and ways to help others in similar situations.

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Yet, Netflix has cancelled One Day At A Time, while renewing 13 Reasons Why for a third season. What’s more, Netflix has also refused to let CBS All Access, a rival streaming service save the show.

As this piece points out, Netflix is, in the end, a business and not our friend, however much it may try to portray itself as one. The aim of Netflix and other media platforms will always be to make money. Which is why there is a need for us to demand greater accountability from them.

The recognition of the influence of media on the youth has led to various organizations, including WHO, to create and document best practices for portraying suicide on screen. Recommendations include that the entertainment media should avoid depicting the suicide method used; that the message that help is available is conveyed and that accurate information about how people can seek help is included.

There is also a need for parents, teachers and other adults to be vigilant and educate themselves about mental health. At the end of the day, TV shows can only attempt to start the conversation. It is the adults in the lives of these young people who must actually have that all important conversation with them.

If you or anyone you know is feeling suicidal, here are some of the helplines available in India. Please call. 

Aasra, Mumbai: 022-27546669
Sneha, Chennai: 044-2464 0050
Lifeline, Kolkata: 033-2474 4704
Sahai, Bangalore: 080–25497777
Roshni, Hyderabad: 040-66202000, 040-66202001

Image source: a still from 13 Reasons Why

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