Suicidal Ideation – Does the 13 Reasons Why Series Influence Teen Suicide?

As a parent, are you aware that Netflix recently launched a new teen drama series based on the young adult novel, 13 Reasons Why, by Jay Asher? In the series, the main character, Hannah Murphy, commits suicide after experiencing a lethal combination of bullying by her peers, an incidence of stalking by a classmate, and the petty cruelty that can make life in high school a hell on Earth. The teen records a series of cassette tapes (these are her 13 reasons) which detail her motives for choosing suicide. On the day of her death, she mails the tapes to the thirteen classmates who influenced her suicide, in the hope they will listen to them and understand how their actions can affect others. While the Netflix series may open the door to frank discussion on several topics between the teens who watch it and their parents (suicide, bullying, stalking, rape, sex, and depression are addressed in the drama), there is concern that the show amounts to suicidal ideation by over-glamorizing suicide. And, because the drama is popular with teens, there are fears that it will increase the risk of vulnerable adolescents taking their own lives.

Furthermore, much younger children have access to this show, as well as to additional overwhelmingly adult-themed programs on Netflix and other online and streaming services. Because of the content of some shows like 13 Reasons Why, it is critical that caretakers use parental controls to block and prevent their children’s access to programming that is above the child’s content level.

Does Suicidal Ideation Raise Suicide Risk?

Across the country, many school districts have sent warnings to parents about the hit series, especially now that the drama has been renewed for a second season. In Colorado, where seven teens in one small locality have committed suicide since the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, the Douglas County School District temporarily removed all copies of 13 Reasons Why from its library shelves until it had a chance to review the content of the Jay Asher book.

Did they go too far? While we know that suicide is the second leading cause of death in teens, do we really know that books, movies, or television shows increase the risk of a certain behavior in impressionable teens? Is it possible that media coverage can spread “behavioral contagion,” which is defined as the situation in which the same behavior spreads quickly and spontaneously through a group?

The answer is unquestionably “yes,” according to Madelyn S. Gould, Ph.D., a psychiatrist at Columbia University. She states, “The magnitude of the increase [in the number of suicides] is proportional to the amount, duration, and prominence of media coverage. We know from a number of studies that the celebrity status of a suicide victim increases the impact of the suicide.”

In her abstract on the subject, Dr. Gould cites a study relating to suicidal ideation (Martin, G. 1996. The influence of television in a normal adolescent population. Arch. Suicide Res. 2: 103–117.) in which “students reporting frequent exposure to television suicide reported more suicide attempts.” This means that the glorification of a person’s death can present a compelling case for choosing death to a person who is already actively considering it. Add to that the feeling of being alone in their pain and the rapid sharing of condemnation and bullying via social media and, like Hannah in 13 Reasons Why, it’s possible a depressed teen might be pushed over the edge.

Suicide Warning Signs

Just as with an adult, adolescents who are considering teen suicide generally show unmistakable warning signs. In fact, four out of five teens who attempt to take their life give signals about their intent before their attempt.

These suicide warning signs can be:

  • Feeling down or depressed for more than a week or two
  • Sharing feelings of worthlessness, self-contempt, or of being hopeless and unsure of ever being happy again
  • Making jokes about dying or about suicide
  • Giving away possessions they formerly cared about deeply, such as favorite clothes or  mementos
  • Losing interest in activities or relationships they used to enjoy
  • Talking a lot about the suicide of someone important
  • Isolating themselves
  • May have insomnia or may over-sleep, may be lethargic
  • May exhibit extreme mood swings or have violent outbursts of grief or anger
  • May have had a significant recent loss (for example: they may have lost a close family member, been diagnosed with an serious illness, may have lost their freedom or security in some way)
  • Indulging in high-risk behavior, especially if this is not characteristic of the person
  • An increase in drug or alcohol use

Your teen needs to know you care about them and are taking them seriously. If your adolescent or teen exhibits some of these behaviors and you are concerned, either ask your child directly or have someone they trust ask them if they are considering suicide. It is okay to say the word “suicide” – simply using the word will not increase the chances of them acting on the idea.

If they are considering suicide, show empathy for their feelings and refrain from judging them. Enlist the aid of a mental health professional such as those at our Children’s Center, your child’s pediatrician, or a suicide crisis hotline. The crisis hotline is especially critical if your child is in imminent danger of attempting suicide.

Never leave your child alone if they are threatening suicide. If you believe your child is in immediate danger, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) in the United States.

Teen Depression? Our Children’s Center Can Help

If your child is showing signs of teen depression, don’t wait! Contact the experts at our child-focused Children’s Center for help. To reach the Children’s Center for Psychiatry Psychology and Related Services in Delray Beach, Florida, call us today at (561) 223-6568.

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