'13 Reasons Why' Increases Suicide Risk For Vulnerable Teens: Study

Young people treated in a psychiatric emergency department report that watching hit Netflix show 13 Reasons Why increased their risk of suicide, according to a new study from the University of Michigan.

The show has been criticised for its controversial -- and at times, graphic -- portrayal of suicide since it was released in 2017, but this is the first published study examining viewing patterns and reactions to the show among high risk young people.

Of the 87 people who participated in the survey in 2017 and 2018, about half had watched at least one episode of the show, and of those, half (in total 21) said it heightened their suicide risk.

Worryingly, the majority of people surveyed said they were more likely to discuss the show with their peers (81 percent) than with a parent (35 percent).

Australian Katherine Langford starts as Hannah Baker, a teenage girl who records 13 tapes before killing herself. Photo: Netflix.

Lead author Dr. Victor Hong said that while the study doesn't confirm the show is increasing suicide risk, it does confirm the legitimacy of concerns from parents, teachers and the medical community.

"Few believe this type of media exposure will take kids who are not depressed and make them suicidal," he said.

"The concern is about how this may negatively impact youth who are already teetering on the edge."

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He said the idea for the study came about after colleagues at different children's hospitals shared anecdotal evidence about hearing teens talk about the series.

"The main character is easy to identify with. She's a teen girl who has suffered from sexual assault, bullying and anxiety -- which, unfortunately, impact too many of our youth today," he said.

Further research is needed, he said, but the findings suggest a "particular vulnerability" of the show's themes for at-risk youths.

13 Reasons Why was heavily criticised upon its release, not only for its graphic depiction of the suicide of lead character Hannah Baker, but for how it handled the story: through the audience -- Hannah is able to find some closure.

Writer Ijeoma Oluo even described the series as "the ultimate fantasy of teen suicidal ideation", while scores of mental health professionals expressed concern over the unrealistic depiction of the events leading up to the suicide

When it came time for 13 Reasons Why's second season in 2018, Netflix teamed up with mental health organisations around the world to provide a safer viewing experience.

Headspace -- which criticised Netflix for its handling of season one --  led the initiative for Australia, and has a dedicated resource page on its site around the show, with resources, helplines, and interviews with key cast members about the more difficult issues discussed.

"Not everyone who watches the show will find the content distressing as it will depend on their individual life experiences and current circumstances, but for those who are concerned information is available," it says.

"If you find the themes in the show distressing and need any support, chat to a friend, your family, a trusted adult or a professional."

If you are in crisis, you can contact one of these 24/7 national crisis support services: Lifeline (13 11 14), Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467), or BeyondBlue (1300 224 636).

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au

Lead photo: Netflix