Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that half of suicidal teens in a hospital sample said the controversial Netflix hit show, 13 Reasons Why contributed to their suicidal symptoms.
According to NeuroscienceNews.com, researchers surveyed 87 youth between the years of 2017 and 2018 and found that half had watched at least one episode of the popular show. Based on the story of a 17-year-old girl who takes her own life after being sexually assaulted and bullied, the story centers around recorded cassettes that detail 13 reasons why she took her own life.
From the time it was debuted two years ago, the show raised alarm among mental health experts who believe it could have a potentially negative impact on vulnerable youth.
The Michigan study appears to have confirmed these fears. The study sampled 87 youths between 2017 and 2018 and found that half had watched at least one episode of the show. Of the 43 youth who said they watched it, about half (21) said it heightened their suicide risk.
Even though the study does not confirm that the show increases suicide risk, “it confirms that we should definitely be concerned about its impact on impressionable and vulnerable youth,” says lead author Victor Hong, M.D., medical director of psychiatric emergency services at Michigan Medicine.
“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.”
Netflix has not been deaf to the concerns of experts and responded to the criticism by opening the second season with a disclaimer urging young people to watch the show with a trusted adult. They also claimed that the report they commissioned found that 71 percent of youths spoke with a parent about the episode.
The Michigan study found very different results. Instead, researchers found that 84 percent of teens watched the show alone, and 81 percent discussed it with peers rather than with a parent (35 percent).
“The data from our sample of teens demonstrated that kids who were at high risk of suicide did not reach out to adults,” Hong adds. “They mostly watched the show alone or talked to friends, but they weren’t talking to parents, teachers or school counselors. Youths who are in greatest need of adult support may be less likely to seek it out.”
In fact, very few parents in the Michigan study had watched the series themselves and some were unaware that their child had done so.
Of those teens who said the show increased their suicide risk, the majority strongly identified with the lead female character, Hannah Baker.
“The main character is easy to identify with,” Hong says. “She’s a teen girl who has suffered from sexual assault, bullying and anxiety — which, unfortunately, impact too many of our youth today.”
Researchers are calling for more research as well as the creation of programs for vulnerable youth and their parents.
“Parents whose kids may be vulnerable or at a high risk for suicide should be even more diligent about what their kids watch and if they are being exposed to content that could trigger them,” says study senior author Cheryl King, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist at U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
“They also shouldn’t shy away from open, honest and difficult conversations with their kids about these topics.”
Teens struggling with suicidal thoughts are urged to get help from someone they trust and/or they can call the 24-hour hotline at The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Catholic counseling can also be found by contacting your local priest, diocese, or a local branch of Catholic Charities.
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