It’s been years since I read Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, though only a few months since the week the television adaptation was released on Netflix. What ensued after was a national discussion about suicide (not to mention plenty of cafeteria talk among classmates), a note sent out to the parents at my high school about the impact of the show, and remembering the people I have known who committed suicide.
I may be a little late to the discussion, but I’ve had plenty of conversations about the show and the book offline. It was even discussed in my health class when our teacher talked about spotting the signs of depression and what to do if someone tells you they are going to commit suicide (Hint: it’s not just telling them how much you love them or why they should live, but asking them why and how they’re planning to do it. Then you direct them to a national hotline or an adult who can handle the situation.) I wasn’t sure I wanted to shout out my opinion when the internet was in a frenzy about the show’s controversy of depicting graphic rape and suicide scenes. However, with recent reports that 13 Reasons Why has led to an increase of googling suicide methods and a promised second season, I can’t stay silent anymore.
I’m not a psychologist or an expert, but I am someone who has watched suicide rip the lives of those left behind into shreds. I’ve been at the funerals, seen the tears, and wondered how much pain someone must have felt on the inside to have left the people who love them most on this earth with a horrific loss that will last a lifetime. There’s nothing pretty or glamorous about this type of tragedy, and that’s why any media that depicts it needs to be extremely careful with the handling of such a topic.
13 Reasons Why championed itself as raising awareness about suicide. The Today Show reported that actor Dylan Minette (Clay Jensen) told Ellen DeGeneres and her audience, “If people are talking about it, we reached our goal.”
Well, according to a new report by JAMA Internal Medicine, 13 Reasons Why reached its goal and then some. The report, which used Google Search data, found that “all suicide queries were cumulatively 19% higher for the 19 days following the release of 13 Reasons Why, reflecting 900,000 to 1.5 million more searches than expected.”
Search queries like “how to commit suicide” and “how to kill yourself” greatly increased in the wake in the release of 13 Reasons Why. The constant media coverage of the controversy and the availability of the show or commentary about it likely helped increase these search results. With a little curiosity and peer pressure from the constant chatter about the show, someone who is at great risk for self-harm, depression, or suicide could easily watch and find themselves triggered.
While JAMA also reports that “suicide prevention” was googled more often, this is a little victory lost in the wake of reports that two California teens committed suicide, which their families say was a result of their daughters watching the show. How can the creators of this show celebrate it as an educational tool for suicide prevention when it is also leading to dangerous internet searches about suicide and actual suicide attempts?
The answer: it can’t. Maybe the show was successful in starting a conversation. Maybe it made a viewer think twice about bullying or making fun of someone else. Those are maybes. And, at the end of the day, those conversations mean nothing when someone kills themselves as a result, or even begins to think about killing themselves.
These are terrifying losses. My heart goes out to all the families and friends of those who have taken their own lives. It also goes out to those who have begun to think about ending their lives after watching 13 Reasons Why.
I think what’s really important is to share our reasons why not. No one can make Netflix remove their controversial show or reverse the impact of it on people’s lives. But what you, I, we can do is to be somebody’s reason why not. We can be the kind kids in the hallways or at the workplace, or just in general, the kind people on this earth. We can be the friend who notices, and sends not just support, but the life-saving phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255).
Through it all, we can be a reason why not, for others and ourselves.