The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has drawn widespread acclaim and criticism for its portrayal of a teenager’s death by suicide. Caitlin Clevenger, a doctoral student in UT’s Department of Psychology, examines the good and not-so-good aspects of the popular show.
Clevenger studies suicidal behavior among victims of violence as well as suicidal exposure and how it promotes one’s own risk for suicide—a phenomenon called the contagion effect. She also is developing a measure that evaluates the range of ways people can be exposed to suicide, including media portrayals.
Many have expressed concern about how the show might affect teenagers’ personal suicide risk. Having watched 13 Reasons, Clevenger noted that the creators intended for the show to be entertaining, to evoke emotion, to be an art form to compel people to be honest and real, and to destigmatize the conversation around suicide and sexual assault.
“They pulled that off, and their intentions were good. But there are some serious problems with the series,” Clevenger said.
When media sources report on a death by suicide, generally accepted guidelines dictate that they’re not supposed to sensationalize it. They also are asked not to report the method or include graphic details or pictures, she said.
“Those responsible media guidelines do not apply to the show,” Clevenger said. “They very much glamorize suicide.”
The show’s creators give a warning about the nature of the content and provide a list of resources for those struggling with suicidal thoughts at the beginning of each episode, she said.
The premise of the fictional series—the teen leaves behind 13 recorded tapes, one for each of the people she holds responsible for her death—”gives the false message to teenagers that when you die, you can still live on through these tapes and achieve some goals. Realistically, you are going to be dead and not achieve any of those things.”
The series, which was recently renewed for a second season, graphically depicts the sexual assault of the teen. It also shows in explicit detail how she takes her life. Clevenger said she turned away from the television because the scene was so graphic.
“First, it’s instructional and showing people how to kill themselves. It also can desensitize people to suicide,” Clevenger said. “There is research that shows that people who are exposed to a lot of violence or engage in self-injuries become desensitized to it, and it makes it easier for them to kill themselves as they are no longer fearful as they once were.”
She added, “For high schoolers and especially people even younger than that, the show is problematic. For people who have risk factors for suicide, it’s a risk for them to watch the show because of all those reasons.”
Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)