When Netflix released the teen suicide drama 13 Reasons Why in March, it automatically both repulsed and captivated viewers who saw the show’s graphic portrayal of the aftermath of suicide as controversial.
Spoiler alert: Spoiler’s for 13 Reasons Why ahead.
Based on a novel by Jay Asher, the show vividly illustrates protagonist Hannah Baker’s suicide in the finale. While some argue that the series was an accurate depiction of depression and brings much need awareness to mental health issues, many mental health experts criticized the show because they believed it glorifies suicide. A study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, however, suggests the show’s portrayal of suicide is more complicated than “good” or “bad”.
The researchers looked at Google search trends 19 days after the series premiered (between March 31 to April 18) for key phrases, then compared them to the search trends from January to the launch of the show.
They found a 19 percent increase in all suicide search inquiries, particularly “how to commit suicide,” “commit suicide,” and “how to kill yourself.” The fact that these suicide-related searches were spiking so much perhaps support criticism that the show glamorized suicide, making it seem cool.
There’s reason to consider these Google trends reflective of actual suicide rates. According to a review published in the journal American Behavioral Scientist, evidence of suicide in the news and in fictional portrayals have led to increased rates of suicide, making 13 Reasons Why’s singular focus of suicide as a plot point one that is potentially worrisome.
But on the bright side, the study indicates there’s hope that the Netflix hit might double as a public health message. The researchers noticed saw an increase of searches for suicide prevention. Searches for “suicide hotline number” and “suicide hotline” increased by 21 percent and 12 percent respectively, while there was a 23 percent increase for the search terms “suicide prevention” and a 34 percent increase for “teen suicide.”
“It is unclear whether any query preceded an actual suicide attempt,” the authors note, which is an important caveat to the study — and one that puts the show up for further studies going forward on how it affects teen suicide rates.