Teen Suicide Rates Spiked After '13 Reasons Why', Study Says -- Which Experts Feared All Along

A close-up of Hannah Baker in front of a row of lockers.
Netflix/YouTube

It's been two years since the controversial teen drama 13 Reasons Why first debuted on Netflix. And yet, some of the initial criticism that swirled around it is bubbling up again -- particularly, the concern that it glorifies teen suicide. According to a recent study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, the US saw a considerable rise in teen suicide rates immediately following the release of the television series, and experts say it's not a coincidence.

  • The study, published Monday, found a 28.9 percent increase in suicide rates for kids ages 10 to 17 in the month following the release of the TV series.

    Even more alarming is the fact that the number of suicides was higher that month than any other single month on record for the five-year period researchers were looking into.

    The rise wasn't just isolated to that month, either. Over the course of 2017, study authors found there were 195 more youth suicides than expected based on historical data.

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  • Study authors also found that compared to girls, teen boys were more likely to kill themselves after the show debuted.

    Although suicide rates for girls did actually increase, the number wasn't found to be "statistically significant," according to NPR. The same trend was also not seen in adults ages 18 to 64, which offered further evidence that the show -- which was geared specifically toward teens -- had a negative impact on its demographic.

  • Since the news first broke, Twitter has become alight with commentary -- most of which criticized the show's many triggers.

    "It glorified suicide," wrote one Twitter user, who commented on how "graphic" the series seems. "Suicide is permanent. There is no beyond the grave retribution. Shame on them."

    "This movie has A LOT of triggers," added another. "If someone is in a [vulnerable] state this movie show might not be the best thing to watch. Specially not by your self. It's a very important example of how mental conditions can affect all of us."

    "I was already in therapy," added another, "but watching 13 Reasons Why set me back weeks in my recovery. I'd read the book and didn't have an adverse reaction, but the way the show glorified and even romanticized suicide really triggered me."

  • Still, others have praised the show for raising awareness about the issue and sparking discussion about a very real and sensitive topic.

    In fact, a 2018 study by the Center on Media and Human Development (CMHD) at Northwestern University surveyed more than 5,000 teens, young adults, and parents, and found that it did in fact open up more opportunities for that. (It's worth noting that the study was commissioned by Netflix, but it was approved by Northwestern’s Institutional Review Board.)

    More than three-quarters of teen viewers who were surveyed said the show opened their eyes to how a person might be suffering from depression, even if the signs aren't readily obvious.

    “Most importantly, we learned that the show prompted conversations between parents and adolescents about difficult issues they are facing,” said Ellen Wartella, director of CMHD. “Second, the series led adolescents to show more empathy for peers, and third, the survey indicated that parents and adolescents want more resources.”

    The thing is, there's no argument that the issue of teen suicide and its prevention should be talked about more --  and to that end, 13 Reasons Why definitely deserves some acknowledgement. But where the series draws fire is in the way it brings the subject into the light. And that's where things get a bit stickier.

  • The fictional series tells the story of Hannah Baker, a high school student who takes her own life, leaving friends and family with one question: Why?

    The answer -- or rather, answers -- to that question are detailed in a series of cassette tapes she leaves behind. On those tapes, Hannah slowly reveals the 13 reasons why she chose to end her life in the way that she did, and she takes great pains to ensure the tapes make their way into the right hands.

    But experts have said that the film's graphic portrayal of her suicide, coupled with the misleading way it presents mental illness, are what ultimately make the show more problematic than beneficial.

    "Sequences of terrible things happen to Hannah, and we don’t get a feel for her internalization until she kills herself,” Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the JED Foundation, told NBC News shortly after the film's release. “None of that stuff is made clear because it’s focused on the horrible things people have done to her. The whole thing is an extended revenge fantasy.”

    Schwartz also spoke with The New York Times shortly after this latest study was published this week in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
  • “This is the first report I’ve seen like this," Schwartz said, "and of course it was our greatest fear that this might be a possibility."

    He noted, however, that Netflix consulted with the JED Foundation during the second season and had incorporated several of his group’s recommendations into subsequent episodes in an effort to be mindful.

    The NYT also spoke with Michael K Nock, a Harvard psychologist, who warned against making such direct connections between the show and the statistics before more information is known.

    Suicide rates bounce around a lot more when the cell sizes are low, as they are with kids aged 10 to 17 years," Nock shared. "So, this new paper suggests there may be an association between 13 Reasons Why and the suicide rate. However, we must always be cautious when trying to draw causal conclusions from correlational data.”

  • In a statement obtained by the Associated Press, a Netflix spokesperson said they just became aware of the study and will be taking a close look at the research.

    "This is a critically important topic," the statement read, "and we have worked hard to ensure that we handle this sensitive issue responsibly."

    In the meantime, experts continue to urge anyone, of any age, to avoid watching the show -- which is now in its third season -- if they are in an emotionally vulnerable state, and to reach out for help if they feel that they need it.

    If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.