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Is Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” influencing teen suicide risk?

According to a study from the University of Michigan, a significant number of suicidal teenagers treated at a psychiatric facility reported that watching the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” had contributed to their suicide risk. The controversial show features a 17-year-old girl who leaves behind 13 reasons for why she committed suicide recorded on cassette tapes.

In response to widespread concern regarding the influence of the show, a team of Michigan Medicine researchers set out to directly question suicidal adolescents about whether the show had impacted their state of mind.

“This show has been a real phenomenon, especially among teenagers,” said study lead author Dr. Victor Hong. “Its depiction of teen suicide has raised great concern among parents, health providers and educators.”

Among the 87 youths who were surveyed between 2017 and 2018 – mostly teens ages 13 to 17 – half had watched at least one episode of the show. Out of the 43 teens who had watched the series, nearly half said it had heightened their risk of suicide.

“Our study doesn’t confirm that the show is increasing suicide risk, but it confirms that we should definitely be concerned about its impact on impressionable and vulnerable youth,” explained Dr. Hong. “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.”

The researchers also found that the majority of survey participants who had seen the show had viewed it alone and were much more likely to discuss their reactions with peers than with a parent.

When the second season of “13 Reasons Why” first aired in May, it opened with a message urging young viewers to watch the show with a trusted adult, and also emphasized the importance of seeking help. Regardless, very few parents involved in the study had watched the series themselves, and some were unaware that their child had watched it.

“The data from our sample of teens demonstrated that kids who were at high risk of suicide did not reach out to adults,” said Dr. Hong. “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.”

Among the teens who said the showed increased their suicide risk, the majority reported that they strongly identified with the lead character, Hannah Baker.

“The main character is easy to identify with,” said Dr. Hong. “She’s a teen girl who has suffered from sexual assault, bullying and anxiety – which, unfortunately, impact too many of our youth today.”

The study authors said that further research is needed for a better understanding of how media content involving youth suicide can influence the mental health and suicide risk of its viewers. In the meantime, parents must be vigilant.

“Our findings support the need for tailored prevention programming for vulnerable youths and education and training for their parents,” said study senior author Dr. Cheryl King. “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. They also shouldn’t shy away from open, honest and difficult conversations with their kids about these topics.”

The study is published in the journal Psychiatric Service.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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