The first season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why significantly increased suicidal thoughts among its young viewers, studies have shown, and may have contributed to self-harm and actual suicides. Now, as the second season of the show premiers (right in the middle of Mental Health Awareness month, no less) physicians at Children’s Mercy Hospital are bracing themselves for another wave of children and teens engaging in self-harm.
“The emergency department was very busy the months after the first season was released, some of our busiest months ever,” Dr. Shayla A. Sullivant, a child psychiatrist at Children’s Mercy, told Fatherly.
13 Reasons is based on a novel that chronicles the reasons that drove fictional high schooler Hannah Baker to kill herself, and was initially intended to raise awareness of teen suicide and decrease stigma. One of the inaccuracies and moral failings of 13 Reasons was that it painted suicide as a logical response to adversity. “It made it seem like suicide was a reasonable answer, and that suicide is caused by others,” Sullivant says.
But most importantly, show runners failed to follow the World Health Organization’s guidelines to prevent suicide contagion—written to help media professionals navigate the realities of suicide without romanticizing it and unwittingly encouraging copycat suicides—and it shows. One study reported an increase in teens presenting at the emergency room with attempted suicide in the days following the series release. Another widely-reported study found that season one was linked to a 26 percent increase in Google searches for “how to commit suicide.”
Although Sullivant suggests parents try to prevent their children from watching 13 Reasons, she understands that many teens with access to streaming services could be deep into the second season long before their parents become aware of what they’re watching. In these cases, Sullivan suggests co-viewing. Parents should insist on watching with their children, and be prepared to have uncomfortable, frank conversations about the content. “Parents need to know that it is safe to ask their kids about suicidal thoughts,” Sullivant says. “This is important because it helps us identify those at risk. It sends kids the message that we can handle it if they are struggling.”
In response to parents who think that their well-balanced, happy child is unlikely to suffer from the contagious impacts of 13 Reasons, Sullivant has somber news. A recent national report on youth risk estimated that 17 percent of high school students seriously consider suicide each year. The reality is that suicide is not a fringe concern, confined to vulnerable teens who have mental health problems or have experienced trauma.
But an equally important reality, which 13 Reasons conceals from its viewers, is that that most people who experience suicidal thoughts never commit suicide. They get help—and it works. “More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable mental health condition,” Sullivant says. “We need strong examples of recovery and hope so vulnerable teens understand that they can move forward, they can survive whatever the awful situation is that they are facing.” If only that made good television.