The issue of teen suicide has been a fraught topic since long before the seriousness of the issue was spoofed by the song “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)” in Heathers. The troubling reality of the phenomenon, and the fears it inspires, have been a mainstay of cultural concern for decades. Which is why a new study linking the popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why with an increase in teen suicide attempts should be viewed with a massive dose of skepticism about any conclusions to be drawn from it. This is merely the latest scapegoat for a problem that rightfully generates a lot of hand-wringing about how to combat it—and a lot of wrong-headed impulses about controlling art. (Even in the case of cheap sensationalism like 13 Reasons Why, whose depiction of teen suicide is far from subtle.)
The latest linking of media with a real-world sociological issue comes from a study by the University of Michigan just published in the journal Psychiatric Services, which found a significant percentage of teenagers who had been treated for suicidal impulses in a psychiatric emergency department reported having seen the show and saying it had “increased their suicide risk” by an unknown degree. In a survey of 87 youths between 2017 and 2018, roughly half of them (43) reported having watched at least one episode of the show, and of that group, half again (21) said it heightened their suicide risk. (If you want an easier-to-read summary of the findings, they’re available on the Michigan Health Lab’s blog.) The impetus for such a study is understandable: 13 Reasons Why’s entire first season (and the novel it’s based on) functions as a crass validation of every “you’re all going to feel so bad when I’m dead” fantasy of suicide ever entertained during a dark moment.
Because they are researchers and not fear-mongerers, those involved with the study stress the importance of not jumping to conclusions. “Our study doesn’t confirm that the show is increasing suicide risk,” says Victor Hong, medical director of psychiatric emergency services at Michigan Medicine. “But it confirms that we should definitely be concerned about its impact on impressionable and vulnerable youth.” In other words, kids already depressed and potentially considering self-harm may take a worrying message from the show. “Few believe this type of media exposure will take kids who are not depressed and make them suicidal. The concern is about how this may negatively impact youth who are already teetering on the edge,” Hong adds.
Nobody should be surprised by these findings, as they are more or less the exact same results generated by every other study in the history of the universe that attempts to find a connection between graphic or extreme art and its effect on young people. Heavy metal in the ’80s, Marilyn Manson and rap music in the ’90s, 13 Reasons Why now...there’s nearly always some popular form of art that attracts attention when it’s linked to the tastes of youth engaging in harmful behavior, whether toward themselves or others. And I do mean always: After Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther was published over 200 years ago, it was widely banned in Europe following a rash of suicides by young men inspired by the protagonist—and unlike 13 Reasons Why, these were explicit copycats, young men who dressed like Werther or would leave the book open to certain passages when they killed themselves. Suicide, like many actions, follows a cluster pattern in the wake of widespread cultural exposure; after Marilyn Monroe’s suicide in 1962, the average national rate of suicide the next month rose by 12 percent.
All of which is to say, it’s misguided to treat a Netflix series that sensationalizes suicide as equivalent to keeping a loaded gun in your household. Depressed kids seek out depressing music, and books, and TV, and film, true. But so do non-depressed kids, and the idea that there are any conclusions to be drawn from this latest study outside of the usual suggestions—parents should be involved in their kids’ lives, and friends and family alike should be aware of the red flags of depression and suicidal thoughts—risks again laying the blame at the loosely correlated symptom, not the cause. Media and culture certainly play a role in planting ideas in the minds of impressionable kids, just as they always have. Whether it’s Werther or the televised travails of the doomed Hannah Baker, the onus for communicating with ids about challenging art lays not with the art (which is doing its job just by existing) but with those raising said kids.
It was smart of Netflix to add disclaimers to the start of episodes, targeting precisely those vulnerable viewers who might watch the series and find a muse for their already existing thoughts of self-harm. But it’s important to keep the focus where it belongs, which is on the troubling reality that art like 13 Reasons Why only highlights and calls attention to: Namely, life sucks for a lot of kids, and the fact that some of them entertain suicidal thoughts is a societal problem, not a problem of access to an online streaming service.