What Role Should the Media Play in Suicide Prevention?

Netflix's new teen drama, 13 Reasons Why, has reopened an uncomfortable debate among psychologists, educators, and journalists

Photo by Netflix
Photo courtesy of Netflix

Hannah Baker’s unravelling began when a lecherous cellphone photo was sent to all of her classmates. Her first date with a star athlete from her new high school ended innocently in a park playground. They teased each other in a playhouse. Hannah went down a slide; the boy took an unflattering photo from below, pointed up her skirt. They kissed. In class the following day, Hannah locked eyes silently from across the classroom with the boy, who was showing the photo to his fellow athletes. The overexposed image and compromising position provided the group with compelling evidence of a less innocent first kiss. That photo, sent to all their classmates in a mass text, was the start of a rumour that followed Hannah into the last year of her life. “I know you probably didn’t mean to let me down,” Hannah says posthumously to the boy in a cassette labelled “Tape 1” in blue nail polish. “In fact, most of you listening probably had no idea what you were truly doing—but you’ll find out.”

On March 31, 2017, Netflix released 13 Reasons Why, a mature-rated series sold as a polished high-school mystery. The show is narrated by Hannah Baker (played by Australian actress Katherine Langford), a seventeen-year-old who dies by suicide and leaves behind thirteen cassette tapes describing the year before her death. On the surface, the show is a big budget teen drama embracing high school’s harshest realities. Teenage viewers are meant to identify with Hannah, who is quickly isolated, slut-shamed, and harassed in her new school. Hannah describes the classmates who stalked, violated, and raped her. Every adult in the show is portrayed as overwhelmed and incompetent. Every classmate is too self-interested or heartless to hear out Hannah’s concerns.

The show was wildly popular with young adults in the weeks after going live, topping a new metric (in the absence of television ratings) as the most talked about Netflix show on Twitter. But the story, based around Hannah’s death, has psychologists and parents worried—and has reopened a longstanding debate about how we should depict and talk about suicide.

Suicide has long been a taboo subject in the media. Within a month of its release, experts have come together to condemn 13 Reasons Why, while educators struggle to grasp the place it might have in the classroom. The show is based off of the 2007 bestselling book by Jay Asher, which has already found a home in some high schools’ curricula. The Netflix adaptation sets the story in 2016, extends the story’s timeline, and translates the novel’s implicit developments—Hannah’s rape and suicide—into graphic displays. Producers of the show ignored established research that warns against depicting suicide, and framed every element of Hannah’s last day, including her death, like a terminal how-to. Since the release, Dan Reidenberg, Executive Director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), has connected with someone who attempted suicide twice in two days, repeating the method used by Hannah in 13 Reasons Why. Schools have contacted Reidenberg and other mental health experts about students dying or attempting to die by suicide who have mentioned the show. New Zealand’s classification board pointed out the lack of positive examples of open dialogue within the series in its detailed decision to rate the show eighteen-plus. Ontario’s ministry of education is discouraging teachers from using the show as a teaching tool. Schools across the country are sending notes to parents warning them about the series with advice on how to talk to their children about it.

This is, of course, not the first time that provocative media has attracted widespread censure and attention. Books have been banned or challenged in Canada and the US before; violent behaviour has been attributed to video games; some even blamed the Columbine massacre on the music of Marilyn Manson. What makes 13 Reasons Why different? Psychologists argue the show can encourage teens that are already at risk of suicide to imitate Hannah’s death.

The discussion surrounding the show has veered off-course from what celebrity producer Selena Gomez envisioned. Cast, psychologists, and producers—including Gomez—explain their inspirational take away from the series in the bonus content, Beyond the Reasons, which acts as a bookend to the thirteen hour-long episodes on Netflix. “We wanted to make something that could hopefully help people,” Gomez says in Beyond the Reasons. “Because suicide should never, ever be an option.” Gomez has been open about dealing with depression and anxiety, even flying out while in the middle of her last tour to check into a psychiatric facility. “She has suffered, and she has lived experience, and she is wanting to help,” says Tana Nash, Executive Director of the Waterloo Region Suicide Prevention Council, referring to Gomez. “But somebody said to me, ‘Yes, and she is still alive.’”

The 13 Reasons Why equivalent of DVD bonus content includes Beyond the Reasons, as well as a suicide help website, a morbid Tumblr where fans share their (often grim) thoughts to be printed on series-themed backgrounds, and a feel-good video of teens in pairs describing reasons why their friend or sibling matters to them. But experts argue the show remains deeply off message. In the middle of production, Netflix consulted four mental health professionals with little experience on suicide and media portrayal before producers sought the advice of Reidenberg from SAVE—he was called in the day before the series was scheduled to go live. Reidenberg discouraged producers from going ahead with its release. The show doesn’t mention depression once, and mental health is never seriously discussed. “If you’re not naming it, it doesn’t help young people and it doesn’t help them know what to do when they need to talk to somebody,” said Reidenberg in an online seminar featuring mental health and suicide experts. 13 Reasons Why wasn’t going to be derailed, so Reidenberg put together a list of talking points tearing the show apart and listing the problems with its depiction of suicide.

13 Reasons Why was likely produced with good intentions, but missed an obvious opportunity to champion survivors and resilience to an audience that is considered more vulnerable to self-harm. A new edition of the novel by Jay Asher features a happier alternate ending—Asher admitted he originally considered writing an ending where Hannah lives—and Netflix viewers momentarily glimpse what that life might have been like for Hannah. But the climax of the show remains her graphic death. Even journalists producing news reports on deaths by suicide—typically not as glossy as a show aimed at teens—are cautioned to avoid giving details about the method used and to avoid making the deceased seem like a martyr. The depiction of Hannah’s death on screen follows none of these journalistic guidelines, which were painstakingly developed after decades of stigma and silence surrounding reporting on suicide deaths.

For many years, suicide was seen by many in newsrooms as a private matter that firmly does not belong in the headlines. Journalists were also concerned about suicide clusters or suicide contagion: the idea that hearing about a suicide can push someone else to imitate the death. This largely stemmed from a study on suicide deaths in the Viennese subway system, which opened in 1978, and were luridly reported on in the local media. A study group on Austrian suicide prevention released media guidelines in 1987, which has been connected to a drop in suicides by subway as newspapers toned down reports and stopped giving them front-page billing. In the years following, newsrooms around the world, including here in Canada, clammed up on the topic of suicide for fear of copycat attempts.

This is sometimes called the “Werther Effect,” after a supposed epidemic of copycat suicides following the publication of Johann Wolfgang van Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the main character shares his deep disappointment in love through letters written to a friend—whose responses are unknown to the reader—and eventually details his planned death by suicide. Readers whose lives resonated with Goethe’s German Romantic novel of unrequited love reportedly imitated Werther’s death. The book was banned in Italy, Copenhagen, and Leipzig. In 1778, Christel von Lassberg drowned in Weimar near Goethe’s home with a copy of Werther in her pocket.

Fear of contributing to the Werther effect forced newsrooms to reconsider reporting on suicide altogether. But complete media silence on stories of suicide is impossible when the death of a high-profile personality is in the public interest. And while the Werther effect is still widely accepted as true, reports of the opposite nature—the Papageno effect, named after Mozart’s clumsy bird catcher in The Magic Flute who overcomes a suicidal crisis with coping strategies—has been associated with lower suicide rates. In recent years, the conversation has shifted as newsrooms take a different approach to reporting on suicide.

“Name me a social problem that got better from not talking about it,” says Cliff Lonsdale, the president of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, about the decades-long silence on suicide in the news media. He believes the old way of avoiding suicide meant that reporters could avoid tackling tough subjects such as mental health. “Journalists were always uneasy about covering suicide. There’s something about suicide that makes all human beings uneasy. It’s that ultimate we’re uncomfortable with, and it was easy enough to jump on the bandwagon and excuse our laziness by saying ‘Oh well it’s contagion theory so we’d better just stay away from it.'” Lonsdale says that in 2013 he started working on a guide for journalists and, importantly, by journalists on how mental health issues should be reported to help all newsrooms be consistent with their approach. Mindset, the guide that Lonsdale developed, has a section on how to report respectfully on suicide. One of the key points is: “Don’t shy away from writing about suicide. The more the taboo the more the myth.”

One of the other Mindset guidelines is to avoid descriptions of the method used, but entertainment media has no such restrictions. Lonsdale doesn’t see this as a double standard. He says that the role of journalists is to report on matters of public concern—and that includes deaths by suicide. People are dying, often because of untreated mental illness, he says, and it’s the role of journalists to identify these societal problems. It’s not the role of journalists to censor TV shows or movies, although journalists may end up trying to correct the myths or dangerous ideas that those media perpetuate, including the idea that bullying alone can cause suicide. Lonsdale says that many parents, devastated by the loss of a child to suicide, can put their efforts into campaigns to target bullying behaviour, using their child’s image and story prominently. On the Mindset guide website, Tim Wall, executive director of the Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention, says coverage of these campaigns by journalists may cause other at-risk teens to associate attention and sympathy with taking their own lives. TV shows like 13 Reasons Why, while fictional, may also present the idea that a series of abuses or traumatic events can be enough of a reason for someone to die by suicide.

Lonsdale and the Mindset guide largely take the position that suicide contagion or copycat suicides aren’t a real problem. André Picard, the Globe and Mail’s health reporter, argues that contagion isn’t supported by independent statistics. He says there was no big drop in suicide deaths during the period that media didn’t report on suicide. Liam Casey, a journalist who has written about his struggles with mental health and suicidal thoughts, has argued both in Mindset and in the Ryerson Review of Journalism that reporting on suicide can save lives. He says that it’s important for journalists to provide context to the thorny issues of mental health and to dispel the stigma that may stop people considering suicide from getting the help they need. After his Ryerson Review of Journalism piece was released in 2010, the Toronto Star changed its suicide reporting guidelines and reporters started writing about access to care to contextualize suicide deaths. Mental illness can be treatable, but only if people know where to turn.

“The whole issue of suicide is an uncomfortable thing to talk about, but it happens,” Jay Asher says in Beyond the Reasons. “It’s dangerous not to talk about it, because there’s always room for hope.” Suicide is a reality that deserves to be covered in both entertainment and news media, but the fatal tropes of star-crossed lovers, vexed heroes, and bullied teens play down the well-documented association between mental illness and suicide. Now a month into the show’s release, Netflix has responded to the continuous stream of criticism directed at the show with a promise to tack on additional content warnings. If rumours of a second season turn out to be true, producers can’t bring Hannah back to life, but perhaps they can do a better job explaining why she died.

If you or someone you know is having a suicide crisis call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868, live chat at www.kidshelpphone.ca or find a 24-hour crisis centre.

Michelle Pucci
Michelle Pucci is a producer at CBC North in Iqaluit and a former Chawkers editorial fellow at The Walrus.