Does giving suicide a media platform increase or decrease actual suicides?
The Netflix show, “13 Reasons Why” which depicts the events occurring after the suicide of a high school student, Hannah Baker, is correlated with an almost 29% increase in suicide rates in 10-17-year-old kids living in the United States. In April 2017, the month following the release of this controversial show, there was a spike in suicide rates. This information was published in the Journal of the American Academy and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The deaths by suicide documented in this single month were higher than those seen in any single month in the five years preceding the show’s release.
Although it is difficult to argue cause and effect in instances like these, from a sociological point of view, we can argue that these increases are related to the fact that one of the things that tend to keep individuals from acts of self-harm is that this behavior is viewed as taboo. When mainstream media provides entertainment surrounding the idea of suicide, impressionable children see the behavior as more normative. This increase in suicidal behavior following media coverage is not new. Across the years, over 40 scientific papers have discussed the increase in real-world suicides that frequently follow media coverage of the topic. [1,2,3]
When “13 Reasons Why” was released on Netflix in 2017, it was met with incredible controversy. The show, adapted from a novel by Jay Asher of the same name, follows the lives of a group of teenagers after one of their classmates commits suicide. Netflix’s intention with the series was to encourage honest conversation between those considering suicide or experiencing mental illness or anguish in their lives and people that could help them.
While an initial study published by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported an almost 30% increase in adolescent suicide in the month after the premiere of the show, new studies show that those who continue to watch the show are benefiting from seeing how suicide affects everyone around them. A study published in Social Science & Medicine in July of 2019 revealed that teens who continued to watch “13 Reasons Why” to the end of Season 2 “reported declines in suicide ideation  and self-harm  relative to those who did not watch the show at all.” Additionally, those who watched the show all the way through “were more likely to express interest in helping a suicidal person, especially compared to those who stopped watching.”
Though initial reports from the show reflected a hike in suicide rates right after the show premiered, the subsequent seasons are helping our youth find ways to talk about suicide and other hard topics they were not always able to speak easily about .
- According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for individuals living in the US with 47,000 people committed suicide in 2017. It should be noted that suicide is the second leading cause of death for those ages 10-34 .
- In 2017, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducted the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). This survey found that 4.3 of adults over the age of 18 had had thoughts of suicide in that year. The same survey found that individuals belonging to more than one race or ethnic group were most likely to have suicidal thoughts (8.9%) and women (4.6%) were more likely than men(4.3%) to contemplate suicide .