When Netflix released its massively popular 13 Reasons Why — which centers on a fresh-faced high school girl who kills herself and leaves messages for classmates she holds responsible — the show sparked a heated debate over whether it would romanticize teen suicide. So when a new scientific study was published that showed an uptick in suicide rates for young people after the series debuted in 2017, the headlines were damning, and critics claimed validation.
But mental health experts say people should be aware that it’s more complicated than a simple headline might imply.
“This is sort of the culmination of a series of reports that seem to corroborate some of the concerns that many of us expressed when the show came out. But again, obviously, with any of these things, it’s always difficult to prove causation,” Victor Schwartz, medical director at the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on mental health and suicide prevention for teens, told BuzzFeed News.
Last week the Nationwide Children’s Hospital published a new study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that found there was a 28.9% increase in suicide rates among boys ages 10 to 17 in the US in April 2017, one month after 13 Reasons Why debuted. Over the nine-month period following the show’s debut, researchers also said there were nearly 200 more suicides than expected.
The findings prompted a wave of news articles and concern on social media. But missing from the headlines were important caveats: Researchers did not know if anyone who died had watched the show, and they used a forecasting model to predict what suicide rates should have been that relied on small numbers, which are prone to wide variations.
Basically, the study determined correlation, not causation.
“It’s certainly a curious association, and it looks like the analysis they did in the study was pretty thoughtful,” Schwartz said. “It really shows that something happened that April that was different from other Aprils. It might not be the show, it might be something environmental, but there’s no other obvious thing that’s changed.”
Another finding: The increase in April was only attributable to suicides among boys, not girls, which is curious, given that the main character who kills herself in 13 Reasons Why is a teen girl.
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