The return of ’13 Reasons Why’ sparked fresh concerns about suicide on screen, but has the industry learned from its mistakes, asks psychotherapist Stella O’Malley
The first season of 13 Reasons Why sparked an estimated 19pc rise in internet searches regarding the subject of suicide and so it was with trepidation that I recently watched the new season.
The aftermath of the first season, which broke almost every rule in the book concerning the recommended guidelines about how to portray suicide, showed significantly elevated numbers of people Googling terms such as ‘suicide hotline number’ and ‘teen suicide’.
At first glance this might seem well and good – increased awareness around suicide is one of the aims of the series – however, when we see that the leading increases were actually around terms such as ‘how to kill yourself’ and ‘how to commit suicide’, it brings to light the fact that although 13 Reasons Why certainly increased suicide awareness, it also inadvertently increased suicidal ideation.
Once you delve into the research, the astonishing consequences of how we talk about suicide become alarming. Many of the recommended guidelines are straightforward and, these days, since we all play a part in the online media, we should probably all take note of them: use the word ‘death’ instead of ‘suicide’ if at all possible; don’t refer to the suicide excessively; don’t highlight the method and avoid detailed descriptions of how the person died. Most importantly, don’t share, like or post anything at all that glorifies suicide.
In 1989, a group of suicidologists, public health officials, researches, psychologists and news media professionals gathered for a national workshop in the US to devise the first set of recommendations for reporting about suicide. A few years later, in 1992, Kurt Cobain died by suicide. His sad death marked a turning point where the global media successfully reported his death with responsibility and consideration, helping to prevent a raft of copycat suicides.
But now we live in an age where clickbait rules the day and these well-established guidelines are being disregarded. The ‘dose effect’, where the more exposure the media gives to suicide, the greater the incidence of copycat suicides, suggests that certain features of the internet like search algorithms and hyperlinks are exacerbating the impact of irresponsible reporting. This means that when it’s a story about suicide, we ‘like and share’ at our peril.
Indeed, research shows us over and over again that unless we are very careful and responsible about the way we speak about suicide, one death can lead to many more suicides, especially for people who are similar in age or gender or for those who might identify with the person who has died.
When Robin Williams died by suicide in 2014, the coverage was dangerously irresponsible and following Williams’ death, the suicide rate went up 10pc, with an especially noticeable rise among middle-aged men.
Not only that but a study from Columbia University showed that suicide by the method Williams used rose by 32pc during this specific period.
In this context, it is quite difficult to view the second season of 13 Reasons Why as anything more than sadness porn. The plot is well-known; a young girl is badly mistreated and she mails an audio diary explaining the reasons for her suicide to the people involved. The first season seemed valid enough – the producers said they wanted to start a conversation about mental health and they certainly pulled that off. Nevertheless this first season was also panned by many psychologists both for glorifying suicide and for graphically depicting the suicide of a teenage girl.
The plot in the second season focuses on the unlikely scenario of a court case that unfolds because the parents sue the school for not protecting their child.
Teenagers tend to have a fine sense of justice and so the premise of this series could be particularly alluring to the adolescent brain. Filled with self-importance and that sense of justice, they might truly believe that the bullies will forever live with guilt and remorse as a result of the victim’s suicide.
It’s a compelling scenario: ‘This is why you’ve ruined my life and now you must suffer for eternity with guilt’. But it’s falsely alluring. Blame-worthy people seldom feel much more than a quick pang of guilt before their well-developed self-defence mechanisms come into play.
Most guilty people dismiss their difficult thoughts, and sadly it’s much more likely that the people condemned to live with bitter regret are the people who dearly loved and supported the victim.
It seems strange that 13 Reasons Why, a drama entirely devoted to the topic of mental health and suicide, makes so many glaring mistakes while a soap such as Coronation Street manages to explore the complexities of suicide with touching sensitivity.
Aidan’s recent suicide on Coronation Street was a good example of how to portray the horror of suicide without descending into dangerous melodrama. The soap showed that Aidan had apparently been living in mental torment for some time before the event but he chose never to speak about it. The night of his death was depicted with a gentle understanding of mental anguish without needing to get into the details of how he died.
The fact of his death was enough – none of us really needed to know how it happened; this is in striking contrast to the graphic image of Hannah Baker’s death in 13 Reasons Why. The fallout, the shock and horror from Aidan’s family and friends who never suspected his emotional pain, was also treated with sensitivity and responsibility.
Yet there are certain aspects of 13 Reasons Why that are very powerful. Indeed the vulnerable teenage clients whom I meet in my work as a psychotherapist regularly namecheck the show as having a positive and significant impact on their lives. So it is evidently doing some things right.
The general idea is great – we need to talk about suicide and we need to talk about the challenges to the mental health of teenagers. But we need to do it with care.
Parents of teenagers who are watching 13 Reasons Why should really take this golden opportunity to speak about the different issues that are raised in the series. Various topics such as rape, self-harm, substance abuse, bullying and sexting are explored and if your teenager refuses to sit down and watch it with you, then you should probably watch it yourself so you can intelligently refer to the many different issues involved.
It’s the adults in society who need to ensure that the children understand positive mental health. Teenagers are impressionable and so they will benefit from a discussion about how suicide doesn’t really bestow vengeance and how suicide doesn’t take the pain away either; sadly it just seems to pass it on to other people.
The message needs to be repeated as many times as necessary: if you have intrusive suicidal thoughts you need to ask for help. If that doesn’t work then you need to ask someone else for help. And again. And again. Call the Samaritans, call Pieta House, call a psychotherapist or call your doctor. Relief might not come the very instant you seek help but it will eventually come if you keep searching. There is help available and each person just has to find the right fit for their specific needs.