NIH-supported study emphasises importance of responsible portrayal of suicide by the media, and according to researcher’s youth suicide rates have increased significantly since watching the show.
According to a study published in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Netflix show ‘13 Reasons Why’ was associated with a 28.9% increase in USA youth suicide rates. The study found that following the shows release, the increase was linked with youths aged between 10-17 in the month April 2017, after accounting for ongoing trends in suicide rates.
The importance of using best practices when portraying suicide
The findings highlight the necessity of using best practices when portraying suicide in popular entertainment and in the media.
The number of deaths by suicide recorded in April 2017 was greater than the number seen in any single month during the five-year period examined by the researchers. When researchers analysed the data by sex, they found the increase in the youth suicide rates was primarily driven by significant increases in suicide in young males. While suicide rates for females increased after the show’s release, the increase was not statistically significant.
“The results of this study should raise awareness that young people are particularly vulnerable to the media,” emphasises study author Lisa Horowitz, clinical scientist in the NIMH Intramural Research Program.
“All disciplines, including the media, need to take good care to be constructive and thoughtful about topics that intersect with public health crises.”
Important not to romanticise suicide
‘13 Reasons Why’ is a web-based tv show hosted on Netflix that tells the story of a young girl who kills herself and leaves behind a series of 13 tapes detailing the reasons why she chose to end her life. Although this show has received critical acclaim, it has also generated questions regarding how the show’s portrayal of suicide affects young people who watch it. The series premiered on Netflix on March 31, 2017.
The findings of this study add to a growing body of information suggesting that youth may be particularly sensitive to the way suicide is portrayed in popular entertainment and in the media. Although it is important to raise awareness and bring a realistic perspective regarding the topic of suicide to the public, it is vital to ensure guidelines are put in place, so viewers are aware of the assistance that is available for those who are experience or know of someone experience mental health issues or bullying.
This increasing recognition of entertainment and media influence has led a variety of groups, such as National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the World Health Organization, and reporting on suicide.org, to create best practices for talking about and portraying suicide on screen.
Reminder to be mindful of the possible unintended impact
While compelling, this research had several limitations. For example, the study used a quasi-experimental design, meaning that the researchers cannot make a causal link between the release of ‘13 Reasons Why’ and the observed changes in youth suicide rates.
The researchers cannot, therefore, rule out the possibility that unmeasured events or factors influenced suicide rates during this period.
The second season of ‘13 Reasons Why’ was released in May 2018, and a third season is currently in production and is expected to be released sometime this year.
The findings from this study 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.