Could ‘13 Reasons Why’ be a suicide trigger in Sedgwick County?

Katherine Langford stars as Hannah, a high school student who commits suicide, in “13 Reasons Why.” The show has elicited criticism from some mental health advocates that it romanticizes suicide.
Katherine Langford stars as Hannah, a high school student who commits suicide, in “13 Reasons Why.” The show has elicited criticism from some mental health advocates that it romanticizes suicide. Courtesy photo

As “13 Reasons Why” has become the most tweeted-about show in 2017, some members of the Sedgwick County Suicide Prevention Coalition say reports of suicidal thoughts and attempts have spiked among area youths.

“To see this little bit of an anomaly, it was enough for the clinicians to pick up on this and wonder what we needed to know,” said Bailey Blair, a board member for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Kansas Chapter.

Data for reports of suicides and attempts are not yet available for this spring. There were 68 suicides in Sedgwick County in 2015.

Nicole Klaus, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, said youths have “expressed distress” directly related to “13 Reasons Why” to her and some of her colleagues.

“The show seems to portray suicide as a common response to depression, to anger, to trauma, and while it is a response, it’s so much lower,” Klaus said. “We know adolescents are especially susceptible to contagion effects, so I’m concerned about what that might do to local and national suicide rates in young people.”

“13 Reasons Why” opens as high school students deal with the aftermath of classmate Hannah Baker’s suicide. Based on a 2007 novel, the Netflix series tells of Hannah’s friend Clay Jensen listening through 13 tapes in which Hannah describes people, predominantly schoolmates, whom she blames for her suicide. The show has been renewed for a second season.

Suicide is already the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24. In both Sedgwick County and Kansas, suicide rates tend to be higher than the national average.

A new study found that twice as many children now have thoughts about suicide and self-harm than 10 years ago.

Could be a trigger

Blair said “13 Reasons Why” could be a trigger for students who relate to Hannah’s character. The show also depicts a graphic scene of Hannah’s suicide.

In its guide for reporting on suicide, the World Health Organization recommends that the media avoid explicit description of the method used. While intended for news media, the guide says fictional portrayals of suicide may also influence behavior.

“Detailed discussion of the method used in a given completed or attempted suicide should be avoided, because a step-by-step description may prompt vulnerable people to copy the act,” the guide says.

Blair used the book when she taught at Douglass High School. The book was a good tool because the discussion was moderated with safeguards in place, she said.

The show, however, portrays teachers and counselors as oblivious or uncaring, something Blair fears will cause youths to avoid seeking help.

In one scene, Hannah visits the school counselor to tell him that she feels “lost, sort of empty.”

“I need everything to stop. Just people, life,” she says.

Later the counselor protests that Hannah never told him she was suicidal.

Willing to hear the answer

Blair said the law signed in 2016 in Kansas requiring teachers to take suicide prevention training helps make the circumstances depicted in the show avoidable.

Adults should be willing to ask questions such as “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” and be willing to hear the answer, she said.

The people behind the show might not agree that “13 Reasons Why” is dangerous, but they do hope their show will point people toward valuable resources.

“It’s absolutely treatable,” Selena Gomez, a producer on the series, says in a feature after the show on Netflix. “Anxiety is. Depression is. Talk therapy, treatment centers – there’s a million ways you can find help.”

The show doesn’t explicitly consider whether Hannah is mentally ill. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 90 percent of people who commit suicide had experienced mental illness.

‘Reach out’

Katherine Langford, the actress who plays Hannah, urges people to “just talk to someone.”

“Reach out, even if you feel like Hannah and you can’t talk to your parents or you don’t want to tell anyone at school because you’re embarrassed,” Langford says. “The minute you start talking about it, it gets easier. Just know there’s life beyond what you’re feeling at the moment.”

Klaus said it would be ideal for parents to watch the series before their children do, but many parents are surprised to hear that their 11-year-old has already seen it. If that’s the case, they should ask questions, find out what messages their child has received and talk honestly about suicide, she said.

It’s a powerful story, Klaus and Blair agreed, and one that the creators wanted to send a good message.

“If adolescents can take away anything from this, it’s that telling someone your friend needs help is not betrayal,” Blair said. “Telling someone your friend needs help is being the best friend you can be.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess

To get help

▪ Sedgwick County 24-hour Community Crisis Center: 316-660-7500

▪ National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)