Spike in suicide searches linked to Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why
Mental health campaigners have been voicing their concerns about Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why since the show first aired, claiming it glamourises and encourages suicide. Now, a study has seemingly confirmed these fears. Research, led by John Ayers, a professor in the San Diego University Graduate School of Public Health, found that suicide queries rose 19% above average following the show’s release.
13 Reasons Why was adapted from a book of the same name by Jay Asher and follows high school student Clay Jensen, played by actor Dylan Minnette, after the suicide of his classmate and love interest Hannah (Katherine Langford). Hannah records audio cassette tapes about the events leading her to suicide, left for her peers to listen to.
The first season is 13 episodes long, and its second season is expected to be released sometime in 2018. It recently took the crown as the most tweeted-about series in 2017 so far, and has sparked furious debate about whether it exposes people to suicide in a potentially dangerous way, or is a catalyst for healthy conversations about suicide prevention.
In an attempt to bring some clarity to this debate, Ayers and his team analysed web searches using Google Trends, focusing specifically on searches between March 31, the show’s release date, and April 19, the day former NFL player Aaron Hernandez committed suicide. Ayers chose the April date as a bookend to avoid the effect Hernandez’s death would have had on the searches and the study’s results.
The team analysed all searches containing the word “suicide,” but not those with “suicide squad” included, as those queries were most likely related to the unconnected movie Suicide Squad, which was about a group of villains recruited for a defensive task force.
To isolate the show’s effect on suicide-related searches further, the team used historical search trends to create a control scenario in which 13 Reasons Why was never released, and compared those to the real results from March 31 to April 19.
Reassuringly, the spike in suicide queries did contain links to phrases such as “suicide hotline” and “suicide prevention” — evidence for the argument that the show positively raises awareness about suicide and available resources. However, a higher percentage of searches were related to phrases such as “how to commit suicide,” “commit suicide” and “how to kill yourself”.
Within the 19-day time frame, suicide-related searches occurred between 900,000 and 1,500,000 more times than expected. Previous research established a correlation between actual suicides and increases in web searches for suicide methods.
“While it’s heartening that the series’ release concurred with increased awareness of suicide and suicide prevention, like those searching for ‘suicide prevention,’ our results back up the worst fears of the show’s critics: The show may have inspired many to act on their suicidal thoughts by seeking out information on how to commit suicide,” Ayers said.
Critics of the show recently quoted a 2003 University of Pennsylvania study which found suicide is “contagious” and that suicide attempts increase following graphic depictions of successful attempts, fictional or otherwise. This new study goes some way in bolstering these claims. Dan Reidenberg, executive director at the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) group said in June that “young people are going to over-identify with Hannah in the series…there should be no reason, no justification whatsoever, why any kind of production – entertainment or news – would be so descriptive and so graphic.”
Ayers also suggested that Netflix remove the show so it can be edited to comply with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) media guidelines for producing content about suicide.
The guidelines encourage media professionals to avoid “providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide” and “explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide,” for example. 13 Reasons Why depicts Hannah’s suicide in “gruesome detail,” said Jon-Patrick Allen, a co-author of the study and a research scientist at the University of Southern California.
The WHO also advises people in the media to provide information about where to seek help whenever producing content about suicide. Only four episodes in the show’s first series have a disclaimer before the episode warning viewers that the following scenes may be “disturbing and/or may not be suitable for younger audiences”, despite a suicide victim’s story being the main focus of the plot in all episodes. In Netflix’s defense, this disclaimer does encourage anyone in need of support to visit 13reasonswhy.info for crisis information and resources. Netflix also followed the launch of season one with a documentary called 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, in which the cast and its producers address some of the concerns.
“While many of our members find the show to be a valuable driver for starting important conversation with their families, we have also heard concern from those who feel the series should carry additional advisories,” Netflix said in a statement. “We have strengthened the messaging and resource language in the existing cards for episodes that contain graphic subject matter, including the URL 13ReasonsWhy.info.”
If you are feeling suicidal, or are concerned about a friend or loved one, the Samaritans offer confidential support. Call 08457 90 90 90, visit a local Samaritans branch or go to the Samaritans website for more details and support.