Why are kids killing themselves?
The number of teens “hospitalized for thinking about or attempting suicide doubled in less than a decade,” according to a recent study. Anxiety and depression diagnoses are way up for teenagers.
In the first season, a 17-year-old girl kills herself after a sexual assault, “leaving behind 13 audio cassette tapes for 13 of her classmates on which she explains exactly why she blames them for her death,” writes Grady.
Research suggests that after graphic depictions of suicide, suicide rates go up because of the phenomenon of suicide contagion. One suicide expert says Netflix hired him to review the series before it came out to guide its release. He told them that it shouldn’t come out at all, he says, “but that wasn’t an option. That was made very clear to me.” A study published last fall found that Google searches about suicide — including “how to commit suicide” — spiked after the show’s release.
In response to criticism, Netflix commissioned a Northwestern study that found the show encouraged conversations about rape and suicide. Netflix also added information about where to go to discuss suicidal ideation at the end of each episode in Season 2, writes Grady. “Finally, the show made an effort in its second season to discuss all the reasons suicide is not the answer for troubled teens.” But the “reasons why not” fall flat, she believes.
“None of the criticism of 13 Reasons Why means that we shouldn’t talk about suicide; we should. In fact, it’s critical that we do,” wrote mental health advocate Mark Henick in an impassioned editorial for CNN last year. “But we need to do it right. We know that contact-based education — when people share their personal stories of struggle and recovery — is by far the most effective way of breaking down stigma surrounding suicide, which is the primary reason people don’t speak up or get help.” In contrast, Henick argued, shows like 13 Reasons Why — in which a girl who dies by suicide is celebrated as a heroine and her death is shown in explicit detail, and none of the people to whom she reaches out, including her school counselor, are equipped to help her — can do more harm than good. It can create the idea that suicide will lead to a kind of popular immortality, and that sometimes it’s the best solution to a problem.
In the second season, the brutal rape of a teen-age boy “is played for shock, not for empathy,” Grady writes. The victim plans a school shooting, but is talked out of it by a classmate. That promotes “the myth that school shooters are the victims of bullying pushed to the breaking point and lashing out against their tormentors, and that if their peers had just reached out to them, they might have prevented the shootings.”
Many school shooters are suicidal. They want to be remembered after their deaths, like the 13 Reasons Why heroine.