What You Need to Know About Google Search Trends Following ‘13 Reasons Why’
A study published this week has given us the first data-driven glimpse into the aftermath of “13 Reasons Why,” a popular Netflix show which suicide prevention experts have argued is triggering for suicide attempt survivors and loss survivors — and potentially dangerous for those at risk.
Most notably, the show features an approximately three-minute long scene of the main character, Hannah Baker, graphically taking her life, despite reporting guidelines that advise media sources leave out information about method as well as graphic imagery.
What the Study Says
The study, which appeared in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at internet search trends immediately after the show’s release on March 31st — excluding searches about “Suicide Squad” and cutting off before football player Aaron Hernandez’s suicide on April 19th. Researchers discovered that the show did, in fact, appear to have an influence on suicide-related searches, which were in all 19 percent higher than average for the 19 days following the show’s release.
More specifically, “how to commit suicide” rose 26 percent, compared to what would normally have been expected for that time. “Suicide prevention” rose 23 percent and “suicide hotline number,” 21 percent.
The authors of the study wrote:
It is unclear whether any query preceded an actual suicide attempt. However, suicide search trends are correlated with actual suicides, media coverage of suicides concur with increased suicide attempts and searches for precise suicide methods increased after the series’ release.
Not All Suicide Awareness Is Good Awareness
If the intention of the show was to raise suicide “awareness,” as “13 Reasons Why” creators have argued, it would appear to have done the trick, but experts argue not all awareness is good awareness when it comes to suicide. John Ackerman, a clinical psychologist and Suicide Prevention Coordinator at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, said while the entertainment industry sees all attention as good attention, from a public health perspective, this isn’t always the case. The issue is not that we don’t talk about suicide enough, but how we talk about suicide.
“We’re putting the most vulnerable at risk in hopes of starting a conversation that could help those at risk. It’s the most odd, circular argument that we would never let fly in any other public health field,” he told The Mighty. “Are we going to make the people of Flint, Michigan drink a bunch of poisonous water to bring awareness to the fact that they should have clean water?”
While we know that simply talking about suicide does not make someone suicidal, narratives that focus on the death and aftermath itself, instead of focusing on hope and resources for people who are suicidal, don’t do much good for people who are suicidal, or at risk. Research analyzing how suicide is presented in the media found “suicide modeling is most likely when suicide reporting is extensive, prominent, dramatic, or romanticizing, features a celebrity, or includes details of the suicide method.”
What Advocates Hope for Season Two
Glen Coppersmith, CEO and founder of Qntfy, a company that allows users to donate data for suicide prevention research, told the Mighty it’ll take about two years before we actually see if the show caused an increase in suicides, which makes an early study like this that much more important. “13 Reasons Why” has already promised a season two.
“One thing that greatly concerns me is that it will probably be two years from now before we will be able to see if there was a rise in suicides coinciding with the release of the show,” he said. “Part of the difficulty in addressing the troubling suicide trend is due to this delay — without a more timely system for detection, the opportunity to react with corrective action is lost. In this case, we are likely to be well into a third season of the show before the producers could have the government data to assess the potential effects.”
As far as what “13 Reasons Why” producers and writers should keep in mind for season two, Dese’Rae Stage, a suicide attempt survivor and founder of Live Through This, told The Mighty, “[This] research shows us that raising awareness without proper resources, education and support can be dangerous. In the future, Netflix would do well to consult with mental health professionals with specialized expertise on suicide who can work alongside writers with personal experience, like Nic Sheff, to create a narrative that is both meaningful and authentic without being harmful.”
Nic Sheff, a writer for “13 Reasons Why,” published an op-ed in Vanity Fair in April, defending the show’s decision to depict suicide in such a graphic way. A suicide attempt survivor himself, Sheff argued that a graphic image of suicide actually prevented him from making a fatal attempt.
But one anecdote doesn’t trump research, Ackerman argues, and for season two, producers can’t ignore what experts tell them, or the established best practices in the field. He also criticized Netflix for not doing enough to reduce the “damage” the show might have caused. The “bonus” episode about suicide, and a website dedicated to suicide awareness was, in his professional opinion, garbage.
“If you are Netflix, you have a platform to help tell stories about suicide affectively. For the amount of money they made, what they did was ineffective.”
When asked what she wished “13 Reasons Why” producers would keep in mind for season two, April Foreman, a psychologist and co-host of the Suicide Prevention and Social Media chat, said, “When you know better, you do better. Please consider the health of others when creating your art. Art is no more sacred than any other part of our public infrastructure. It is against the public interest to knowingly do things that might make the public sicker.”
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
Lead image via 13 Reasons Why Facebook page