The close relation between suicide rates and '13 Reasons Why'

According to a study published in April, it is possible that portraying suicide in the series has serious consequences for vulnerable teenagers

Scene from the series '13 Reasosn Why '/ Netflix

Capture of a scene of '13 Reasons Why' / Netflix

Latin American Post | Juan Gabriel Bocanegra 

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On July 15, the official page of the series 13 Reasons Why published that it was going to censored the scene of suicide of the first season since apparently, it has not had a positive effect on the spectators who see it. This announcement happens months before the premiere of the third season.

Leer en español: La estrecha relación entre el suicidio adolescente y '13 Reasons Why'

The series is about the reasons that led Hannah Baker, a teenager new in town, to commit suicide. Each chapter includes a recording that she leaves to the people she considers responsible for her suicide. Also, the series shows what happens to the recipients of the recordings after she died.

The series poses adolescent suicide with an explicit scene that leaves no doubt of the seriousness of the problem. However, this message left ambiguous points, since just after the premiere in April 2017 the suicide rates of young Americans increased.

You may be interested: Graphic suicide scene edited out from '13 Reasons Why' finale

This was the conclusion of a study led by Jeff Bridges, director of the Center for Suicide Prevention at Nationwide Children's and professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and behavioral health at the Ohio State University College of Medicine.

Published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry in April of this year, the study analyzed data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about suicide in the United States from January 1, 2013, to December 31, 2017.

The results didn't show good news for the series, nor anyone. According to the study, the suicide rates of young people between 10 and 17 years of age increased by 28.9% during April 2017, the following month after the first season of the series. The figure was 0.57 per 100,000 young people in the aforementioned range and the following nine months there were 195 more suicides than the patterns of previous years showed.

Another particularity of the study was that the increase happened mainly in men under age and not so much in adolescent or adult women.

Faced with this result that seems counterintuitive, considering that the character of Hannah is a teenage woman, Dr. Lisa M. Horowitz, a plant scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health's Intramural Research Program and one of the co-authors of the study, said for The New York Times that "Females of all ages are three times more likely to attempt suicide, but males are four times more likely to complete it, any increase among girls may have come in attempts".

A Netflix spokesman said the day after the study was published that "this is a critically important topic and we have worked hard to ensure that we handle this sensitive issue responsibly," in statements collected by CNN. In addition to the reissue of the suicide scene, the streaming company has also created helplines and made publicity within it to seek help in case of suicidal thoughts.

Regarding the result of the research, Dr. Horowitz also told NPR that "The results of this study should raise awareness that young people are particularly vulnerable to the media," study co-author Lisa Horowitz, a staff scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, said in a statement. "All disciplines, including the media, need to take good care to be constructive and thoughtful about topics that intersect with public health crises".

Bridges also spoke about the importance of being careful in the fictional reproduction of these acts. "There is ample evidence that explicit and sensational portrayals of suicides in the news and entertainment media can increase the risk of infection, especially among vulnerable youth," but "when done responsibly, representations of suicides can help reduce stigma and promote the search for help and support," he said in an email sent to The Huff Post.

So much was the impact of the study that the National Association of School Psychologists published a statement warning parents about the dangers of the content of the series: "We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies "

Finally, a caveat must be made, as the New York Times mentions. The study points out that there is a correlation but not causality, with the suicide increases in April 2017 mentioned in the study. This means that "the authors could not determine if watching the show influenced the suicide of any spectator". Beyond invalidating the Bridges study argument, it is important to keep in mind that there may be other variables that give a more complete picture of why it increased in that particular month.

Even so, what is clear is that in series with such a mass audience, the consequences of portraying such sensitive issues and more with a target audience of young people can leave the sphere of fiction and have serious effects on reality.