The graphic, unsettling finale of the hit Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” was intended to be a statement.
It was meant to reveal the graphic nature of suicide – real death – as slow, painful, and ugly. It was designed, according to one of the show’s writers, to counterbalance false narratives that portray suicide as a romantic way to prove people wrong or get revenge.
“I stand behind what we did 100%. I know it was right, because my own life was saved when the truth of suicide was finally held up for me to see in all its horror – and reality,” wrote “13 Reasons Why” writer Nic Sheff in an Op-Ed for Vanity Fair after the show’s premier.
Unfortunately, a new study suggests that while some people who watched the series were inspired to Google information on suicide prevention, just as many wound up searching for information on how to take their own lives.
“The time for more debate is over. The makers [of “13 Reasons Why”] must swiftly change their course of action, including removing the show and postponing a second season,” John Ayers, a behavioral scientist at San Diego State University and the lead author of the study, told Business Insider. “If not, subscribers should consider cancelling their subscriptions so not to support programming that can cause premature death.”
Ayers’ paper, published July 31 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at how internet searches for suicide changed, both in volume and content, after “13 Reasons Why” was released. The researchers were careful to exclude potential news events related to suicide as well as recent movies with the word “suicide” in them (like “Suicide Squad”).
In the roughly two weeks after the show premiered, they noted 900,000 to 1.5 million more searches for topics on suicide than would have been the norm – a 19% increase.
Of the trending searches on the subject that rose most sharply, a majority were about suicidal ideation, or thoughts about how to kill oneself. Searches for the phrase “how to commit suicide,” for example, were 26% higher than would have been expected, while the phrases “commit suicide” and “how to kill yourself” were 18% and 9% higher, respectively.
That finding is a major cause for concern, said Ayers.
The search results weren’t all negative. Some searches related to suicide prevention were also elevated after the show’s premier. Queries for the phrase “suicide hotline number,” for example, were 21% higher than the norm, while searches for “suicide hotline” were 12% higher and searches for “suicide prevention” were 23% higher.
Regardless of the potential effects on Google searches, it’s important to note that the researchers don’t know what effect these searches had on behavior. They don’t know, for example, whether anyone who Googled “suicide hotline” actually called it – or if anyone who looked up suicide methods attempted to take their own life.
“Additional surveillance will clarify our findings, including estimating changes in suicide attempts or calls to national suicide hotlines,” Ayers wrote in the paper.
The show’s release in March 2017 came almost a year after the release of a study that suggested suicide deaths in the US had surged to a 30-year high. The National Center for Health Statistics analysis found that between 1999 and 2014, suicide rates rose 24%, the highest the country has seen since 1986.
While the most pronounced increases in suicide were in women and middle-aged Americans, suicides also rose sharply among girls aged 10 to 14 – slightly younger than Hannah, the main character in “13 Reasons Why.” Although the rise in suicide deaths among this group was low compared to other groups, the spike was still dramatic, researchers told the New York Times.
“Psychiatrists have expressed grave concerns because the show ignores the World Health Organization’s validated media guidelines for preventing suicide. The show’s staff instead continue to prefer their gut instincts,” said Ayers.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.