Youth suicides rose dramatically after release of '13 Reasons Why': NIH study

Promo poster for the Netflix series '13 Reasons Why.' | Facebook/13ReasonsWhy

Suicides among American youth rose by one-third the month after Netflix's series "13 Reasons Why" was released, according to the National Institutes of Health.

"The rate of suicide in April 2017 was 28.9 percent higher among U.S. youth ages 10 to 17 than would be expected based on suicide counts and trends observed in previous years," the NIH study said.

Researchers at several universities, hospitals, and the National Institute of Mental Health — which funded the study — published their findings in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The study highlighted the necessity of using "best practices" when portraying suicide in popular entertainment and media programming.

Guidelines from suicide prevention groups like the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend that entertainment media avoid depicting the specific ways persons on screen die by suicide and also convey how those considering suicide can find help.

The series "13 Reasons Why" tells the story of a teenage girl who recounts the many reasons why she chose to take her life. In the final episode she is shown on-screen in the bathtub cutting her wrists.

A spokesman for Netflix called the subject of rising youth suicides a "critically important topic" and said they have worked to handle the issue responsibly, noting that the company has seen the NIH's research and is reviewing it, according to Reuters.

The Netflix spokesman also asserted that the NIH's findings conflict with another study release by the University of Pennsylvania on suicide rates in the U.S. which showed a drop in self-harming and suicidal thoughts among 18- to 29-year-olds after watching the entire second season of "13 Reasons Why."

"Researchers found the beneficial effects only existed for participants who finished the entire season. Those who stopped watching partway through were at greater risk for suicide," The Philly Inquirer reports about the study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, which surveyed 729 adults.

While the study Netflix supports only surveyed 18- to 29-year-olds, the NIH study focused on the increase in suicide rates among 10- to 17-year-olds during the month the first season of "13 Reasons Why" was being promoted and the months after it was released. 

Last year, the parents of a 14-year-old girl who killed herself after binge-watching the first season of "13 Reasons Why" called for the series to be pulled, saying they are convinced it played a part in their daughter's death.

"I really feel in my heart with all my soul that that show contributed to her passing," the father said of his daughter who died on April 18, 2017, The Christian Post reported. 

The NIH researchers noted Monday that while suicide is influenced by many factors and they cannot make a causal link between "13 Reasons Why" and the spike in child suicides, 195 more youth killed themselves "between April 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2017," than previous years. They also found an increase in the "suicide rate for March 2017" when the first season was being promoted.   

"The findings of this study add to a growing body of information suggesting that youth may be particularly sensitive to the way suicide is portrayed in popular entertainment and in the media," the NIH said in a news release. The NIH study also looked at suicide rates among 18- to 64-year-olds and did not find "any significant trends in suicide rates" among those age groups.  

In a statement sent to The Christian Post, Parents Television Council President Tim Winter said Netflix should take the NIH's "disturbing" findings seriously. He urged the company not to conflate the body of research in light of the age differences set forth in the different studies.

"Any other product in the stream of commerce that was linked to increased suicide of children would be pulled from the market. No responsible, publicly-traded, corporation would knowingly continue to distribute such a product. We will see to it that the financial markets that Netflix is relying upon to fund its $2 billion of new debt are aware of what their dollars will be supporting,” said Winter.

“While Netflix may try to justify its program by pointing to other research released last week that found that the suicide risk of adults ages 18-29 who watched ’13 Reasons Why’ decreased after watching the second season of the show, the fact of the matter is that these two studies are comparing two different age groups with two different maturity levels. They are not the same," he continued.

In the same way that Netflix edited out real-life train wreck footage from the hit film "Bird Box" out of concern from viewers, the company is both able to and ought to do similarly with ’13 Reasons Why’ given the impact of the series, especially on the young people to whom the company markets it, Winter added. 

The NIH-backed researchers said their study "should serve as a reminder to be mindful of the possible unintended impacts of the portrayal of suicide."

In the second season of the series, an episode included footage of a teenage boy being sodomized with a mop handle, which prompted demands from PTC that the show be canceled.

Netflix has ordered a third season of the series.

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