Lights, Camera…Suicide!

Enter stage right, “13 Reasons Why” a new Netflix television series about a teenage girl (Hannah Baker) who commits suicide and then leaves behind seven double sided audio tapes for her friends and classmates to listen to. Each tape depicts the harmful events (e.g., sexual assault and rape) that occurred for Hannah that culminated in her tragic demise.

Based off of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same name, the show has earned praise from critics for tackling the difficult subject matter of teen suicide in such a raw, gritty and real sort of way. But “13 Reasons Why” has also received criticism from the mental health community. The main concern being that the show arguably sensationalizes teen suicide, and it also makes the topic intriguing and perhaps even more appealing or attractive to certain individuals – teens who may be emotionally fragile or depressed and who may identify with Hannah. The contagion effect, the idea that one event can spread to similar other events, has been well documented as a real phenomenon for teen suicides.

Some have also voiced concern that the show does little to nothing to promote teen suicide prevention or awareness; although the show is rated for a mature audience, this latter point is certainly valid since many teens are watching it. Incidentally, calls to mental health helplines in Australia increased after “13 Reasons Why” debuted there late last month. And now school systems across the U.S. have issued formal warnings to parents regarding the inappropriateness of the show for younger and more vulnerable viewers.

But the topic or subject matter of teen suicide within entertainment isn’t something new. Teens have always been curious about suicide and death as concepts. Blame it on the frontal lobe being immature (i.e. the area of the brain that manages judgement and impulse control) or hormones and emotions running high, teens can be extreme, and suicide can become an extreme idea or solution for vulnerable youth. And teen suicide has always been rife within pop culture, films and literature of the present and past.

German philosopher Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther,” published in 1774, is an excellent example of our curiosity with youthful suicide from the past. Considered still to be one of the greatest works of European literature, many readers at the time identified with Werther (the main character in the book who ends up taking his own life), which led to some of the first known examples of the contagion effect and copycat suicides. The backlash of “Werther Fever” was so great that the book was ultimately banned in Europe at the time.

For me, “13 Reasons Why” is perhaps emblematic of a larger societal issue where desensitization toward humanity is becoming the norm thanks to the Internet, the media and entertainment industry and social media. Today, teens are flooded with information and in real time so much so that it seems the impact of otherwise upsetting moments is being neutralized or even diminished. For example, in the wake of Aaron Hernandez’s suicide, people tweeted jokes, memes and ridiculed him — when did making fun of someone for killing themselves become acceptable?

I first learned about “13 Reasons Why” from a few of my teen clients who described the show as being “great,” “cool” and “really good.” Several of my teen clients have also recently shared with me that they’ve watched Facebook Live Stream suicides with interest and fascination. I recently also learned about the Blue Whale Suicide Game from a client. In the game, a player is assigned a master who controls them for 50 days with dangerous and harmful tasks, and on 50th day, the master instructs that player to take their own life. The game is being played by teens across social media platforms worldwide, and it’s reportedly been linked to over 130 suicides to date.

I suppose it’s easy to argue that better ratings and restrictions should be put in place for teens for shows like “13 Reasons Why” and for the Internet and social media platforms, but ratings and restrictions can only do so much. Because everything is so accessible these days to teens, and because teens are often curious about topics that are tough for them to make sense of – like suicide – parents more than ever need to be involved in their children’s lives.

So, my advice on “13 Reasons Why?” Don’t let your teen watch it, and instead talk to him or her about what’s on their mind. Having a meaningful conversation about socially or emotionally challenging topics with your son or daughter is a much better idea than letting them binge watch episode after episode of Hannah painfully attempting to make sense of rape, sexual assault, underage drinking, driving under the influence, body shaming and eventually suicide.

For those who need immediate assistance, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours in the day. When calling 911 for assistance within Loudoun County, ask for a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officer.

Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D, is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental health practice based in Loudoun County. He is a regular contributor to the Tribune.