Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” offers a well-intentioned message about being kinder to others and asking for help when you need it, but some suicide prevention experts say the series could do more harm than good.
The 13-episode drama, co-produced by actress and pop star Selena Gomez, is based on Jay Asher’s young-adult bestseller about Hannah Baker, a high school student who kills herself and leaves behind audiotapes detailing the events that led to her death. In each tape, she essentially blames her death on the actions (or inaction) of a group of classmates and a faculty member. That premise, along with a graphic scene depicting Hannah’s death, is at odds with the way experts say we should talk about suicide.
The “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide,” a list of guidelines for media outlets developed by suicide prevention experts and journalists, emphasizes that suicide is usually the result of multiple causes, often involving mental illness, and not something that can be blamed on a person or single event. And experts advise against sensational headlines or describing a suicide in graphic detail, which studies have shown can lead to suicide contagion, or “copycat” suicides.
While “13 Reasons Why” is fiction, it presents similar concerns for advocates working to educate the public. In 2014, suicide was the second leading cause of death for children and young adults ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teenagers, a key demographic for the book and, ostensibly, the series are at particular risk when it comes to contagion.
Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), said he has received calls and emails from parents and school guidance counselors about the show. “There is a great amount of concern in the suicide prevention community around this series,” he said.
The show deviates from the book and unfolds over a longer period of time, but the overall conceit is the same. For Reidenberg, the fact that Hannah gets to tell her story after her death, through the audiotapes, glamorizes the death and sends a potentially dangerous message to viewers.
“Young people are not that great at separating fiction from reality,” Reidenberg said. “That gets even harder to do when you’re struggling with thoughts.”
Netflix does not make viewership numbers public, but there has been noticeable excitement around the series since its March 31 debut on the streaming service. Asher’s book, first published in 2007, has maintained a loyal following and the series has garnered added buzz thanks to Gomez, who is an executive producer along with her mother, Mandy Teefey.
Gomez has talked openly about her own mental-health struggles. The former Disney star sought treatment at a rehab facility last year for “anxiety, panic attacks and depression,” which she said were side effects of the lupus diagnosis she revealed publicly in 2015. Gomez and two of the cast members from the series recently got matching semicolon tattoos, intended to signify that life goes on after mental illness — an inspiration for the movement known as Project Semicolon.
“We wanted to do in a way where it was honest and we wanted to make something that can hopefully help people because suicide should never ever be an option,” Gomez explains in the 30-minute featurette “Beyond the Reasons,” also available on Netflix.
But, as suicide prevention advocate MollyKate Cline noted in an essay for Teen Vogue, “13 Reasons Why” fails to convey a viable alternative. Hannah never tells her parents or friends that she has suicidal thoughts. She eventually goes to her school’s guidance counselor for help, but instead of offering treatment options, he questions her in ways that make it seem like the issues she’s dealing with — including multiple instances of sexual assault — are her fault.
Reidenberg, who has seen several but not all of the episodes of the series, said the counselor’s dismissal of Hannah’s concerns sends “a horrible message.”
SAVE partnered with the Jed Foundation, a youth suicide prevention group, to compile a list of talking points to help parents discuss the series with their teenagers. The list emphasizes that Hannah’s experience with her guidance counselor isn’t “appropriate or typical.” And unlike the show, it uses the term mental illness. Well-established research suggests that 90 percent of individuals who commit suicide experience mental illness, but “13 Reasons Why” never explicitly considers whether Hannah is suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other issues.
A representative for Netflix said in an email that four mental-health experts (some of whom appear in the featurette) consulted on the series — reviewing scripts and offering feedback to creator Brian Yorkey. A companion website links to the Jed Foundation and provides information for crisis hotlines in more than 35 countries. Several of the episodes in the series, including the one that depicts Hannah’s suicide, begin with graphic-content warnings.
In “Beyond the Reasons,” Yorkey says that depicting Hannah’s suicide was a deliberate choice. “We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide,” he said.
But Reidenberg said “there should be no reason, no justification whatsoever, why any kind of production — entertainment or news — would be so descriptive and so graphic.”
Reidenberg said TV shows and films can raise awareness and encourage discussion about suicide without appearing to glamorize it. He has consulted on TV projects, including an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” that debunked the long-standing myth about suicides spiking during the holidays.
With advocates and TV writers “working together, there can be great productions and depictions that actually help the public better understand suicide,” Reidenberg added.
This post has been updated.