Family Health, Child Health | 6 months ago

Viewer Discretion Advised: ‘13 Reasons Why’

The Netflix series is opening a dialogue about teen suicide – and graphic violence on TV.

Critics of the new Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” say it glamorizes teen suicide and could lead to dangerous consequences, but supporters argue it highlights a growing problem in our country. Both sides are right.

The Media Effect

Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, it was the second-leading cause of death for people between 10 and 24 years old.

The show’s attempt to jump-start a conversation about the rise of suicide rates may have been well-intentioned, but psychologists, educators and parents fear it could spark what’s known as suicide contagion, or “copycat” behavior.The American Association of Suicidology and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention agree, saying the prominence of suicide coverage in the media can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals.

Melissa Paris, a physician assistant at Charlotte Pediatric Clinic who does not think teens should watch the series, says several parents and fellow employees have asked her if they should let their kids watch the show.

“It’s important for us to have conversations about teen depression and its consequences, but we need to talk about it in a way that is not cool or trendy,” she says. “We need to encourage teens to seek help and we need to teach them how to help others, so we can reach those who are struggling earlier.”

A Tough Topic – Even for the Right Audience

The 13-episode drama brings to life author Jay Asher’s best-selling young adult novel of the same name. The story unravels as a group of students are haunted by 17-year-old Hannah Baker, the lead character, who leaves cassette tapes that detail her decision to take her own life.

“The more teens are exposed to graphic content, the more it normalizes it,” says Paris. “And it can even desensitize teens when bad things happen in real life. I would rather see the series encourage teens to seek help and break the cycle of depression instead of possibly making teens feel guilty and depressed.”

The show’s co-producer, Selena Gomez – an actress and pop star with a loyal teen following – added her voice to the debate in a recent Associated Press interview saying, “(Suicide) is going to come no matter what. It’s not an easy subject to talk about.”

Suicide Rates at All-Time High

Suicide rates in America have surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, according to the most recent federal data. The overall suicide rate in America jumped nearly 25 percent, going from 10.5 per 100,000 people in 1999 to 13 per 100,000 people in 2014, according to the CDC. While every age group had increases, the rise was particularly noticeable in women and middle-aged Americans – groups known for stable or falling rates since the 1950s – and among girls ages 10 to 14. Even though young girls make up a very small portion of total suicides, the rate of that group more than tripled.

The Unseen Impact 

When a series like this gets a lot of hype, Paris worries already vulnerable and depressed patients might be encouraged by the series and hurt themselves.

“While it can be helpful for teens to see how things can get out of control so fast, they also need to understand how their actions – no matter how small – can affect others in big ways, and for a long time,” says Paris. “And I don’t think that’ll be the take-home message from this series.”

The rise of social media has changed things for teens, too, says Paris. “Everyone sees the good, staged photos of their friends but that’s often not the reality of life,” she says. “Teens can fall into the trap of thinking things are better for others and it can make them feel isolated or that their life does not measure up if they’re not part of the fun. Isolation and loneliness are huge risk factors for suicide, so if you truly feel something is wrong with your teen, trust your gut and get help.”

Need Help?

If you or someone you know is in need of help, reaching out is the first step to safety. Visit our resource page, or call the Carolinas HealthCare System Behavioral Health Help Line for 24/7 crisis assistance: 704-444-2400 or 800-418-2065.