Why Experts Are Wary of “13 Reasons Why”

Why Experts Are Wary of “13 Reasons Why”

If you are a fan of Netflix, you’ve probably seen or heard about the popular series “13 Reasons Why.” But did you know that the show has been subject to a high amount of criticism from psychologists and therapists since its release in March 2017? The criticism comes from a diverse range of experts in the mental health field. Articles outlining concerns have been published by: Psychology Today, Newsweek, Medscape, CBS, nprED, The Huffington Post and more. Parents and teachers around the country are also concerned about 13 Reasons Why’s graphic themes and potential to do damage to teenagers who watch.

The criticism by mental health experts boils down to these main points:
1) the show does not accurately portray the reality of teen suicide
2) the show makes it appear that there are no alternatives to suicide, and that there isn’t adequate support for teens from peers or school counsellors
3) the show romanticizes and glorifies the suicide, and also presents it as a solution to bullying and as a satisfactory means of revenge
4) the show has the potential to encourage suicides among teens who struggle with mental illness

Despite the criticism, the Netflix original series has been extremely popular with teenage and adult audiences. There’s been over 11 million tweets mentioning the show since its release, making it, by social media standards, the most popular Netflix series of the year.

The show is about a teenage girl named Hannah, who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 cassette tapes blaming 13 people for her suicide. The show reveals through its 13 episodes that Hannah committed suicide because she was a victim of bullying and sexual assault. This is where psychologists say 13 Reasons Why falls short of real-life accuracy, since there are no references to Hannah having a mental illness or depression. Suicide is highly correlated with mental health issues and depression. Not everyone who experiences trauma, bullying or sexual abuse turns to suicide. While there’s still potential for someone without mental illness to commit suicide, it is far less common.

Mental health experts agree that while it’s good to generate conversation and awareness about teen suicide, 13 Reasons Why has the potential to do more harm than good. The contagion effect is one possible consequence of the show. The contagion effect occurs when teenagers who are already affected by mental illness, depression and thoughts of suicide, see other teen suicides in the media, and decide to follow suit and take their own lives as well. Because of this we see “cluster suicides” where groups of teenagers, who may not even know each other, commit suicide because others in their town have. These teens are already struggling with depression and seeing other suicides acts as a catalyst for their own suicide.

Benjamin Shain, M.D., Ph.D., child psychiatrist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Illinois, stated in an interview with Medscape Medical News, “There is an increase in adolescent suicides when there is a news report of an actual suicide or a fictional depiction of a suicide. Three percent of suicides are thought to be related to the contagion effect.” This means that even a fictional suicide in a Netflix show can inspire real life teen suicides. Some mental health professionals believe that the solution is in increased awareness and preventative measures taken by parents and bystanders, including teenage peers. Everyone should be aware of the signs.

Signs that a person is depressed and might be contemplating suicide:
– loss of interest in favorite hobbies or activities
– decline in grades / schoolwork
– abundant amount of time sleeping
– rebellious behavior
– drastic changes in appearance, personality, eating habits, sleeping habits
– drug or alcohol use
– mentioning suicide: idolizing suicidal people, discussing suicides seen in the media, joking about suicide, referring to suicides with admiration
– organizing and giving away their possessions
– subtle or obvious goodbyes
– a community member, a friend or family member has recently committed suicide
– breaking up with their boyfriend/girlfriend
– trouble with family members

Another area where therapists say 13 Reasons Why falls short: it shows no adequate resources, help or support for Hannah. In reality, schools, parents, organizations, therapists and counsellors all over the country are striving to reach out to teenagers and demonstrate that there is help and support for depression and mental illness. They are trying to teach teens that suicide is not the answer, they are not alone in their struggle, and help is available to those who ask for it.

Online Suicide Prevention Resources for Teens:
Crisis Text Line: http://www.crisistextline.org/
– Provides free emotional support and information to teens in crisis or feeling suicidal.
– Ability to text a specialist 24 hours a day. Text “CTL” or “LISTEN” to 741-741.

Maine Teen Suicide Prevention: http://maine.gov/suicide/youth/index.htm
– Has information about suicide prevention, how to get help for yourself or peers, stories by teens who have struggled with mental health issues.

ReachOut.com: http://us.reachout.com/
– Provides information and support for struggling youth, the information is written by teens and young adults.
– Has fact sheets about depression and suicide, information on how to get help for yourself and peers. You can also join a forum to connect with peers for immediate support or use the text service ReachOut TXT to get help from trained volunteers.
In addition to using online resources, teenagers who feel depressed, anxious, hopeless, who are bullied, assaulted or are contemplating suicide should tell a parent, a school counselor or a doctor. Suicide is a devastating act which should not be seen as glorifying or as a means of revenge. Mental health experts advise teenagers or young adults who struggle with mental health issues, depression or thoughts of suicide, to NOT watch 13 Reasons Why. Instead they should seek help, find someone they trust and realize that things can and will get better with time, support and possibly therapy and medication.

If you would like to speak to one of our therapists about mental health issues, depression or suicide, reach out to us at Family & Child Development.