A new study finds support for mental-health professionals who expressed concern that a popular television show about a girl who committed suicide could lead to higher rates of suicide among young people.
The study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and conducted by researchers from several universities, hospitals and the NIMH, found that the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” was associated with a 28.9 percent increase in suicide rates among U.S. youths ages 10 to 17 in April 2017, the month after the airing of the show’s first episode.
The NIMH said that the number of deaths by suicide recorded that month was “greater than the number seen in any single month during the five-year period examined by the researchers.” And they found that the increase in suicides was largely driven by suicide among young males.
The findings, which took into account current trends in suicide rates, “highlight the necessity of using best practices when portraying suicide in popular entertainment and in the media,” the NIMH said in a release.
The show, about a 17-year-old girl’s suicide, debuted March 31, 2017, and has aired for two seasons, 13 episodes each. It is based on a 2007 young adult novel and includes detailed scenes of young people harming themselves, including one of a teen who cuts her wrists with a razor in a bathtub, and her blood is seen pouring out as she struggles to breathe.
When the series began, mental-health counselors and others expressed concerns about copycat behavior and the glorification of suicide by vulnerable youths. At the time, the National Association of School Psychologists released guidance to parents on how to lead discussions, along with other resources.
The piece below looks at what schools and communities should be doing to address the suicide crisis among young people. It was written by Olga Martinez Hickman, executive director of Bachman Lake Together, a nonprofit organization working to support children in one of Dallas’s most historically underserved neighborhoods. She is a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project, an effort to increase the variety of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world.
By Olga Martinez Hickman
The findings of the study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, reflect a major mental health crisis that our nation has so far largely ignored — the suicide rates of our youth, especially young people of color.
Today, suicide is the third leading cause of death of American youth ages 10-24, and the rates are double for black children. Our schools and policymakers need to take action immediately to reverse this trend, starting by leading a national conversation on how cultural norms, socio-economic status, poverty, race and stigmas affect our youth.
As the mother of a 13-year-old girl of color, I know how hard it is to judge the mental health of our kids. I’m often offered a shrug and an indifferent “I dunno” when I try to engage on emotional topics. But this national mental health crisis is not just normal teen angst.
Psychiatric emergency room visits by adolescents increased 28 percent between 2011 and 2015, according to a 2019 study in the journal Pediatrics. And the rate of suicide-related visits more than doubled.
The largest group increases were among adolescences of color: Visits by Hispanic teens grew 91 percent and by African American teens by 53 percent. But only 16 percent of these patients were seen by a mental health professional during their visit. Another study found that black youth are killing themselves at twice the rate they were 20 years ago.
These high rates for children of color are perhaps not surprising, given that children from nonwhite races and ethnicities suffer higher rates of trauma (or what mental health professionals call “adverse childhood experiences, or ACES for short), according to a 2018 study published in JAMA Pediatrics.
If these children don’t receive help coping with these experiences, they’re likely to experience negative outcomes for years to come, including depression, suicide, and emotional and behavioral challenges, research clearly shows. Add to these experiences the increased pressure of social media and bullying, and you have a recipe for an epidemic for this young generation.
Children of color are not receiving the help they need, and the consequences are dire. On top of everything else, these kids — who represent the diverse future of America — deal with a higher base level of stress.
“Teens of color have the added stressor of the daily navigation of overt and micro racial aggressions, and our mental health interventions are normed for white people,” said Michelle Kinder, a nationally recognized leader in social-emotional health. “These mental health interventions may not be a good cultural fit.”
Our schools, educators, legislators and communities must begin to address both teen mental health in general, and the needs of teens of color specifically. Although success can’t happen overnight, many of these measures can be started immediately.
Debunk negative stigmas associated with mental health. To decrease stigma, teachers, parents, the community and teens themselves must become better informed on issues of mental health. Our health education classes and curriculum need to address mental health as an important part of life, and familiarize kids and parents with resources. We should also consider public information campaigns to change perceptions, decrease stigma and promote recognition of the signs of mental distress.
Increase mental health resources at schools. While most schools employ counselors, it is critical that mental health professional prioritize the basic mental health support of all students. With increasing violence and suicides among teens, some state leaders have called for hiring more mental health professionals, including psychologists and counselors to focus on mental health in schools. These experts can offer education to parents, students and staff around identifying and treating mental health issues before it’s too late.
Social emotional learning in schools and the community. Programs such as Yoga N Da Hood in Dallas are bringing yoga, breathing and other mental health practices to neighborhoods and schools traditionally lacking access to such resources. Perhaps most importantly, they’re adapting the language and approach of these research-proven techniques to be culturally informed and appropriate to the kids they’re trying to reach. We need programs like this around the country, to give children the coping techniques they need for an increasingly stressful world.
It’s time to recognize the significant impact mental health plays in the life of our children. By prioritizing the mental health of youth in America, we can begin to support and entire generation, and ensure our youth have zero reasons to want to end their lives.