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Another study shows a rise in teen suicides following 13 Reasons Why

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Another study has shown a rise in teen suicide rates after 13 Reasons Why debuted on Netflix.

The show has become the poster child for, what researchers call, ‘contagion by media’, used by psychiatry professors to explain how culture could drive suicide attempts and completions. 

There have been so many studies published on it in the last two years that, on Wednesday, the show’s creator wrote an article refuting the research, insisting the show’s positive impact has been over-looked. 

Hours later, on Thursday morning, one of the world’s top medical journals added another paper to the pile, this by researchers in Austria who found a 21-percent spike in teen girls committing suicide, and 12 percent among teen boys, in the three months after 13 Reasons Why was released. 

The first season of 13 Reasons Why drew criticism for its graphic depiction of a teenager's suicide. The second season focused on the aftermath of the girl's death. The third season is in production

The first season of 13 Reasons Why drew criticism for its graphic depiction of a teenager’s suicide. The second season focused on the aftermath of the girl’s death. The third season is in production

The team at the Medical University of Vienna used national US data before and after its the first (of three) series screened in 2017 to estimate suicides among three different age groups.

Since the show is on Netflix, which does not release specific viewer stats over time, they contrasted the general viewer stats with chatter on Twitter and Instagram to gauge engagement. 

As previous studies have found, the only significant shift in suicide rates was seen among 10- to 19-year-olds – incidentally, the show’s target group. 

There were 37 more suicides among girls (21.7 percent higher than usual), and 66 more among boys (a 12.4-percent increase; boys already have higher rates of suicide completion compared to girls) between 31 March, when the entire series was released in one go, and June 30, 2017. 

There was no increase in suicides among 20-somethings or 30-somethings.

‘Young people were the clear target demographic of 13 Reasons Why, which portrayed issues such as bullying at schools and life problems in adolescence,’ lead author Dr Thomas Niederkrotenth, whose study was published in JAMA, said.

He added: ‘Significant associations were present for all of the three months in which the show was discussed on social media. 

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‘Our findings appear to point to the need of engagement by public health and suicide experts to engage with members of the entertainment industry to prevent further harmful suicide portrayals.’  

Like others before him, Dr Niederkrotenthaler, a professor of public health, said: ‘Concerns were raised the graphic depiction of Hannah cutting her wrists in the bathtub, and the implication seeking help for suicidal thoughts is futile, might trigger imitation acts and additional suicides.’ 

It’s hardly a new take, and the show’s creators expressed their exasperation about it on Tuesday in an article for The Hollywood Reporter.

Showrunner Brian Yorkey and psychiatrist Rebecca Hedrick, who advises on the series, wrote: ‘With its unflinching depictions of the hurt teens can go through — anxiety, bullying, assault, depression and suicide — it helped lift the stigmas young people increasingly experience growing up today.’

They added: ‘In 2018, the show won a Mental Health America Media Award for encouraging conversations “between parents, students and mental health advocates on the epidemic of teen suicide, depression and bullying.”‘

Dr Niederkrotenthaler does not disagree. 

His study pointed out that there is evidence bullying rates decreased significantly after the show screened.

And, crucially, we do not know how many of the teens who committed suicides in those months watched the show.   

‘However,’ Dr Niederkrotenthaler said, ‘the suicide increase in youth only and the signal of a potentially larger increase in young females all appear to be consistent with a contagion by media and seem to reinforce the need for collaboration toward improving fictional portrayals of suicide.’ 

  • For confidential support in the UK call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit a local Samaritans branch, see www.samaritans.org for details. 
  • For confidential support in the US call the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255.
  • For confidential support in Australia call the Lifeline 24-hour crisis support on 13 11 14.

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