We Need To Stop Writing Suicide Stories

Last month, a University of Michigan psychology study found a link between Netflix’s suicide teen drama, 13 Reasons Why, and suicidal intention in vulnerable teen viewers. 

It’s a small study, with only 87 participants, but it echoes what experts on teen mental health have claimed from the show’s debut — the show’s treatment of its suicidal protagonist poses a serious risk to depressed teen viewers. 51% of viewers of the show in the study believed that the series increased their suicide risk to “a nonzero degree,” and participants who identified with the protagonist — especially those with more depressive symptoms before watching — were more likely to experience negative affect watching the show and feel at increased risk of suicide afterwards.

These aren’t the first accusations against the show. After the show launched in 2017, researchers from the University of San Diego found a 19% increase in suicide-related web searches, such as “how to kill yourself” and “how to commit suicide”, while researchers at Harvard found that there was a 40% increase in the proportion of teens seeing doctors about suicidal ideation.

None of these studies are conclusive. Correlation is not causation, after all. But several different bodies have laid out guidelines on how to write about suicide to protect readers and prevent “suicide contagion” — where exposure to suicide, through the local community or through the media, leads to an increase in suicidal behavior. 13 Reasons Why breaks almost every rule.

Of course, 13 Reasons Why isn’t the only series to do so. In fact, I’d argue that most fiction about suicide must almost inevitably go against these guidelines. But since 13 Reasons Why breaks the rules so egregiously, to the point that several academics have studied its link to a rise in suicidal teen behavior, I think it’s a valuable way of looking at that list, and at how so many writers cause harm by writing “suicide stories,” no matter their perspective.

Do Not Include Details

According to Mindframe Media, an Australian media initiative to improve reporting about suicide and mental health, “reporting explicit detail about method has been linked to increases in both use of that method and overall suicide rates.” This is echoed by the Samaritans and the US initiative, Reporting on Suicide. If media must include the method of suicide, they should not go into excessive detail, and should never show images depicting that method or location. New Zealand even has a law banning reporting on the method of death unless given special permission to do so.

13 Reasons Why depicts protagonist Hannah’s suicide in graphic detail. The dramatization of her death is the show’s climactic moment, the event that everything leads up to, and that affects everything after, and viewers must watch the entire event. In an interview with EW, show creator Brian Yorkey claimed: “We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.” But guidelines suggest that even a photograph of the location where someone died or the mention of something such as a brand used can increase the risk of copycat suicides in readers and viewers. 

Avoid Dramatic or Sensationalistic Images

Journalists are asked not to use dramatic recreations of suicide, or dramatic and powerful images like a noose alongside reporting. Not only does this inspire copycat suicides, but it also hurts those who have lost a loved one or someone in their community due to suicide. These people are already at far greater risk of suicide than the general populations, and sensationalistic depictions only exacerbate this. 

In the book Thirteen Reasons Why, the method of suicide is only vaguely alluded to, in adherence with the first guideline, but the use of pills is implied. In the show, however, Hannah chooses a much more physically violent method. It’s gory and bloody and horrifying and visually dramatic, and I can’t help feeling that this method was chosen over the one in the book precisely because it would make more visually dramatic television. They wanted to burn the image in people’s minds, and again, this does not help people at risk of suicide. Graphic depictions of suicide or suicide-related suffering only increase suicide risk. 

Do Not Speculate About Reasons or Include the Contents of a Suicide Note

Media outlets should not discuss the potential triggers or reasons behind a suicide. As the Samaritans write, this can lead to over-identification, increasing suicide risk in people who see the described situation reflected in their own life.

No matter how 13 Reasons Why approached Hannah’s suicide, the show was guaranteed to be harmful from its inception, because of its core concept. The show is built around an extensive suicide note, and its driving narrative force is the mystery of what led to Hannah’s death. It turns a teenage girl’s trauma into a mystery that drives the story forward, revealing answers to a question that is fundamentally flawed. Why did Hannah kill herself, the story asks? Why were these thirteen seemingly normal people responsible for her death? It doesn’t present suicide as a deadly consequence of mental illness, but as a key part of a narrative, where all the pieces fit neatly together with death as their conclusion. 

And unfortunately, the show could not overcome this. No matter how sensitively the story might explore the idea of suicide and mental health, and no matter if it eventually concludes that it was no one’s fault, the show’s marketing will be seen by far more people than the show itself, and that marketing has a clear message. There were thirteen reasons. Here is why. 

Discuss Ways To Get Help

The show’s first season aired on Netflix without any additional advice or information about where struggling viewers could get help. In fact, because of the show’s narrative structure, it makes suicide feel inevitable. It lays down a path of cause and effect, and doesn’t provide viewers with viable alternatives. After all, when Hannah sought out help, people failed her, again and again, until suicide seemed like her only choice.

And again, this feels an inevitable part of a story about a suicide. The story cannot present ways that viewers can get help through Hannah’s story, because of the way that Hannah’s story ends. 

Do Not Give The Story Undue Prominence

According to the British National Union of Journalists, “copycat incidents are more likely when the story appears on the front page, has a large headline, and is heavily publicised.”

Like, for example, the auto-playing recommended spread at the top of Netflix that appeared when the show launched for its target demographic — teens, especially teen girls, and fans of teen drama. 

Do Not Suggest That Suicide “Gets Results”

Writers should not suggest that a person’s suicide had a positive outcome, or otherwise achieved something worthwhile. The Samaritans use the example of a bully being exposed as a result of the death, an idea that might further convince the victim that suicide is their only path to freedom and justice.

This is, again, one of the main concepts of 13 Reasons Why. Through her suicidal tapes, Hannah gets her revenge against those who hurt her. She exposes people’s cruel behavior, and teaches characters like Clay to pay more attention to those around them and reach out when they see someone who might need help. 

Do Not Glamorise Suicide

This one should be a given, and yet 13 Reasons Why was heavily commercialised and romanticised after its launch. The icon of Hannah’s suicide note cassette tapes was unofficially sold to viewers on t-shirts, necklaces, phone cases and other accessories. This isn’t Netflix’s fault directly, as they did not market them, but it was a consequence of making a popular teen show about suicide notes. During the height of the show’s popularity, one teen even gave a 13 Reasons Why inspired prom proposal.

Be Especially Mindful of Young People

According to the Samaritans, young people are particularly vulnerable to suicide coverage, especially coverage of the death of another young person. So aiming a show at teens that breaks almost every rule on writing about suicide, for a thirteen episode stretch where viewers are encouraged to empathize with Hannah, understand her reasons, watch the suicide itself, and see the impact of her death? That is harmful on a level that should not be allowed. 

IMPORTANTLY, MANY OF THESE RULES RUN CONTRARY TO NARRATIVE PRINCIPLES

13 Reasons Why is not unique. Almost any novel or TV show specifically about a suicide is going to break many if not most of these principles. Advertising gives the story prominence. The narrative will explore the reasons why and discuss the details. The death will have narrative consequences, and writers may be tempted to show positives as well as negatives to provide the reader with some sense of closure. Whether it’s a novel about an extensive suicide note or a suicide pact, it is potentially harmful to its audience, and especially to the very people it should instead be trying to support. 

Writers: please stop doing this. Your story will not be different. It will not raise understanding of a complex emotional issue. It will only harm the people you most wish to help.

And readers: if you are struggling, you are not alone. If you’re in the US, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website. In the UK, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123, or find more information on ways you can get help here. You can find international helpline numbers here.

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