Since April, psychologist and anti-suicide activist Dan Reidenberg has encouraged Netflix not to go forward with hit show 13 Reasons Why. Now, researcher John Ayers of San Diego State University is saying the same thing.
New studies demonstrate that the show may be having the opposite effect it should. Ayers monitored a period in April after the release of the show and before Aaron Hernandez’s suicide, to track how the term suicide was being searched on the web.
“We actually may see more suicides because of this show,” said Dan Reidenberg back in April. Today, he seems vindicated. Unless it’s all a massive coincidence, 13 Reasons Why could have led to an increase in suicidal thoughts. To John Ayers and his researchers’ dismay, “how to commit suicide” and “commit suicide” both saw a 26 and 18 per cent jump respectively. This has been attributed directly to the show, which is the only cultural event about suicide large enough to have possibly created such a shift. The World Health Organization has a guide on how to depict suicide in media. They bring up Goethe’s first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and its subsequent cultural consequences. They note the ‘Werther effect’ that followed the novel’s wild success, wherein a young protagonist kills himself at the novel’s conclusion over an unrequited and fanatical love. Young men sought to embody the romanticism of young Werther, and a spike in suicides followed. The WHO specifically cites a list of six things not to do when dealing with suicide in art: don’t publish photographs or suicide notes, don’t report specific details of the methods used, don’t give simplistic reasons, don’t glorify or sensationalize suicide, don’t use religious or cultural stereotypes and don’t apportion blame. Shockingly, 13 Reasons Why does at least five of them. It has been said that the show paints a picture of suicidal people as vindictive and simplistic, blaming specific people for their deaths, making a game of their suicide by turning the suicide note into the foundation of a guilt-tripping plotline. The controversy evokes pertinent questions about the role of art, as well as the ethics of creating a second season, which Netflix currently wants to do. Is art about suicide actually going to help suicidal people?
Is the intention of making a show about suicide to comfort people who are hurting, or simply to tell a gripping story at any cost? Are artists socially responsible for the outcomes of their work, or is that a confusion of roles? In the case of suicide, it may seem opportunistic and gross to knowingly portray the topic in a way that is demonstrably unhelpful. Perhaps production with a notion of social good could make a series like 13 Reasons Why much better, and avoid tired tropes about suicide. The ideal would be to create a show about suicide that helps the suicidal. That justifies the grim topic and risk involved in the subject. But ultimately, it’s up for Netflix and the viewers to decide: can you justify a second season when there is so much controversy surrounding it?
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