13 Reasons Why – A Clinical Perspective on Suicide Contagion
This is part three of a three-part series offering a clinical perspective on the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why (originally published on May 4, 2017).
Part 3: Suicide Contagion
Reportedly, the writer and producers who created 13 Reasons Why believed that the very explicit suicide scene would help discourage people from attempts (Nic Sheff, Vanity Fair, April 19, 2017), despite clear and convincing evidence that graphic depictions of suicide often have the opposite effect, especially among young adults. Interestingly, the show illustrates clearly the phenomenon of suicide contagion: for example, Hannah’s suicide directly contributes to an attempt by one of her friends, and several of her other friends either seriously consider suicide, or become otherwise more self-destructive. While the show demonstrates the danger of contagion, the creators appear not to have considered how their particular approach to presenting the series may create similar vulnerabilities and danger in young viewers. Suicide is fundamentally an irrational act that occurs in a state of tremendous distress. When a suicide occurs, this increases feelings of pain and guilt, as well as making suicide feel more accessible. For this reason, showing Hannah’s suicide in such detail seems likely to be counterproductive.
There are signs that the creative team responsible for 13 Reasons Why plans to make a sequel. This is disturbing, as this again suggests that the material in this show is being used primarily for entertainment. If these plans proceed, it is to be hoped that the writer and director will proceed more thoughtfully and in consultation with experts in the field of suicide research and prevention.
The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit group organized to help prevent youth suicide, has issued specific guidelines, which can be viewed on their website.
Here are a few DOs and DON’Ts related to 13 Reasons Why:
- DON’T watch this show if you are feeling like you might be vulnerable or if the idea of it makes you uncomfortable.
- DO, if you are a parent, find out if your children have watched this show. If they plan to watch it, consider watching it with them.
- DO watch the show critically, thinking through Hannah’s decision and her friends’ decisions, noticing where there actually were caring relationships and missed opportunities.
- DO use the show as an opportunity to talk about other issues that appear, like dealing with coming out, gun violence, and drunk driving.
- DO use this as an opportunity to ask about suicidal thoughts and feelings. If you are having suicidal thoughts or feelings, ask for help, using the resources from the Jed Foundation, or a therapist or counselor.
Educators and parents may additionally find the considerations and cautions provided by the National Association of School Psychologists to be a useful resource.