Don’t give Netflix the last word on suicide

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Netflix ripped open the wound of teen suicide for the world to see, for parents to understand, for teens to listen.

The world has indeed watched, and parents are perhaps better prepared to understand the warning signs of suicide. But now advocates and the rest of us are waiting to learn – are teens listening? Or more to the point – what exactly did they hear?

For the uninitiated (that would likely mean you, parents and grandparents, because this show is on the radar of every teen), Netflix recently launched “13 Reasons Why,” an internet sensation based on a popular book that explores teen suicide. The 13 episodes revolve around the suicide of Hannah Baker, a vibrant teen who slowly becomes despondent in the face of rumors, bullying, sexual assault, and ultimately, rape. In her final days, she recorded 13 audio tapes, one for each person who in some way contributed to her pending suicide. Through each episode, the characters come to learn where they went wrong. Hers is a story missed opportunities, but it can easily be interpreted as a story of revenge.

That’s the part that scares suicide prevention advocates, who have built a carefully crafted and long-standing media strategy to avoid suicide contagion, a well-documented and very real finding that the publicity of a suicide, either by word of mouth or by news reports, can in fact lead to more suicides and suicide attempts.

When a classmate commits or attempts suicide, counselors step in and they guide the conversations. This series, for the time being at least, has changed that. The experts are no longer leading the conversations being held in high school and middle school classrooms, locker rooms and lunch tables. Instead, they’re being led by Netflix.

That bothers many suicide prevention advocates, including Ken Norton, the executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance On Mental Illness. Not because teens are talking about the issue. But because Netflix didn’t do its part to educate its young viewers about their options and their resources. Instead, they went counter to many of the data-driven best practices and they took the most sensational route possible, complete with Hannah’s chilling and overly graphic final act. The omission of basic contact information was perhaps the most egregious mistake, he says.

“It was irresponsible for Netflix to do it without including a suicide prevention number at the end of each episode,” Norton said.

That’s a fair point. But so is the need to continue to educate parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches and friends about the warning signs and the statistics. This issue is far from going away. In fact, it’s become more acute in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Hampshire ranks in the bottom half nationally with 16.6 suicide-related deaths per 100,000 residents across all demographics. Both in New Hampshire and nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 34-year-olds.

The issue merits responsible dialogue led by suicide prevention experts, not television producers aiming to cash in on the next big hit (Note to readers: They’ve recently inked a deal for Season 2). And we should all be well versed on where to turn for help.

For a collection of New Hampshire resources and tips for awareness, visit theconnectprogram.org. For immediate help, call the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).