“13 Reasons Why” and Suicide Contagion

May 8, 2017

By Patrick Devitt

The Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, has caused a furor.  In the show, a high school student who has died by suicide has left 13 tapes, one for each person she believes have contributed in some way to her eventual decision. Each episode relates to an individual tape. The penultimate episode depicts the suicide in a gruesome manner. Some say the series is an accurate and sensitive portrayal of the inner angst of an individual that will help enlighten us as to the motivations behind suicidal behaviour and suicide itself.  Such an openness can only be good and may be helpful to others in similar predicaments. Critics, though, have worried that it may glamorise suicide or normalise it as a legitimate option when dealing with interpersonal predicaments—leading to more suicides.

It is well known that suicide can be a contagious phenomenon. “Copycat” suicides are seen in local clusters from time to time. Any possible causes of such contagion should be taken seriously, but the science shows that the role that fiction can play in inspiring suicide is at best unclear. 13 Reasons Why is not the first work of fiction to be embroiled in this type of controversy.  Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been accused of glamorising suicide.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, released in 1774, describes the pain and heartache experienced by Werther because of his affection for Charlotte, who eventually married Albert, Werther’s friend.  Unable to cope, Werther decides that one of them must die and ends up shooting himself with Albert’s pistol.  It was widely believed that von Goethe’s work led to a wave of young men deciding to end their lives all over Europe, many of whom were dressed in the same clothing as von Goethe’s description of Werther and using similar pistols.  Some even had the copies of the novel beside their bodies with the page opened to the page of the suicide scene.  The suicide researcher, David Phillips, coined the term, “The Werther Effect,” to refer to the phenomenon of copycat suicides.  The result of Phillips’ research from the 1970’s was the recommendation that stories about suicide not be placed on the front page of newspapers.

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9 comments on ““13 Reasons Why” and Suicide Contagion

  • Last week I saw a couple of interviews on TV with individuals who were fearful of a suicide copy cat effect as a direct result of the show discussed in the article here. This prompted me to watch the show to see what the hand wringing was all about. It was a very interesting show and I ended up binge watching it all the way through.

    I thought the show did a decent job of transporting us back to the high school days and all of the social jostling and drama that goes with that. I didn’t see anything unusual in the trials and tribulations that any of the young characters dealt with on a regular basis. The drugs and sex were par for the course including the rapes that happened at the end of the series. There will be gnashing of teeth over this by the puritanical head-in-sand type parents as we would expect.

    I really did appreciate the effort the series made to portray the daily difficulties experienced by these teens as they made their way to adulthood. I am worried about a copycat effect and I’m very sure this is being watched closely to gain more understanding of this effect.

    My daughters are watching it now and I’ll be interested to hear what they and other young people have to say about it.



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  • I binge watched the last six episodes over three days with my daughter (2 years older than the protagonist but a decade or so more knowing). We liked it for its honesty and the fact that many collared as being causal were finally shown as bad vibe contributors only.

    The end series documentary was useful. (The two exec producers were hilariously different in competence. The hefty guy was compassion and insight central. The other had barely mastered the idea that feelings were a thing.)

    My two concerns were the expectations loaded upon the school councillor to intuit deep problems from a brief interview, and the lack of voicing the need to teach and to employ the tactic of not taking offence, of understanding that your impressions are wrong most often being built nearly always on incomplete knowledge. As Prof Nicholas Epley in MIndwise demonstrates we are so sure we know what is in an other’s mind but we are only 20% correct normally rising to 40% between lovers or spouses. This latter is the very grist of Shakespeare and Pinter and most tragedy.

    Society can be hugely pro-active to guard against a growing problem of increasingly self harming and triggered individuals without pandering to ever greater concerns for trivial sensitivities.



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  • Yes Phil, I agree about the counselor and I did feel that way about about Clay somewhat too. After the botched sexual encounter between him and Hannah I didn’t think it unusual that he put some distance between the two of them. An awkward interaction between two seventeen year olds.



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  • The result of Phillips’ research from the 1970’s was the recommendation that stories about suicide not be placed on the front page of newspapers.

    Recommendation by whom? That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. How can anyone be so damned stupid? If someone wants to kill themselves they will. Let’s not have news about murder or obesity or substance abuse or crime or sadness while we’re at it. Stupid, stupid people. So many stupid people with their lame, stupid suggestions.

    Sick of hearing about that NetFlix show too that everyone’s talking about.



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  • Part 2

    Nevertheless, we should be aware of the Werther and Papageno Effects. It is difficult to see how the fictional portrayal of suicide in an explicit manner could have a positive effect in any way unless, of course, the downsides of suicide in terms of its effect on relatives and friends are also strongly portrayed.

    Of course, he says! Of course! I’m sorry to be so shrill but this is simply one of the worst articles I’ve ever read. Art is not supposed to be pleasant all the time, for Christ’s sake! The artist holds up a mirror to the world (a cliché, I know), presents nature, life, people – the joy, the pain, the humor, the tragedy of life, all of it – and truthfully– and where there is truth in art there is beauty and solace. Anything gratuitous is bad; but if violence or suicide, explicitly presented or not, or whatever it is, is part of the honest narrative of a film or a novel or a play or a poem, and (in the case of a novel or film or drama) is something that enhances the plot or reveals a tragic aspect through the honest i.e., consistent depiction of a person’s “fate” or character, then it is good. Good. Not bad. Glossing things over is the epitome of badness, and we did that for centuries. Shall we go back the the Victorian Era or worse, to censorship of the ugly and the hideous? If we can’t present life as it really is (and it can be hellish) or express our vision or have the freedom to issue a warning through art (and many of the best novels and stories are, in a way, such an issuance), we will be completely lost. The comment above is asinine and pernicious. Who wrote this crap and why was it published? This sounds like someone who wants authors to show “both sides”, as if that’s the job or responsibility of an artist! Nonsense! He (Devitt) is a totalitarian, a manipulator, knows nothing about art. This is akin to censorship. “Richard III is a bad role model, and so is Ophelia. Men need strong role models. I will ban you. Women need strong women to emulate. I shall censor you. I am Jehovah and will burn you, blast you out of existence!” Yeah, and you, sir, are a Philistine. Think a little before you write your next article.

    Next thing we know he’ll be calling for the suppression of all bad news or both sides there too. You report something bad about, say, the environment then write something positive alongside it. Why not? (Trump would like that.)….Makes my blood boil. “Today, the Senate repealed the ACA, but many people will still have coverage! Don’t worry. Today, we attacked N Korea and NK wiped out a major city in Japan. But it could have been worse. The world will end tomorrow – but not today. Don’t worry….”

    I would argue that tragedy in literature has saved many lives.

    Phil, Laurie, others, have I misconstrued? I don’t think so. I picked up on something that truly rattled me, filled me with loathing, and I had to speak my thoughts.

    -Diogenes aka Dan



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  • 4

    (Councillor and counselor are both correct, Phil. ??)

    It was widely believed that von Goethe’s work led to a wave of young men deciding to end their lives all over Europe…

    I loved The Sorrows of Young Werther. Maybe it did set off a string of suicides; but those people were probably suicidal already. That book and others, as I said, probably saved a few lives.

    The Sorrows of Young Werther

    Preface

    I have carefully collected whatever I have been able to learn of the story of poor Werther, and here present it to you, knowing that you will thank me for it. To his spirit and character you cannot refuse your admiration and love: to his fate you will not deny your tears.

    And thou, good soul, who sufferest the same distress as he endured once, draw comfort from his sorrows; and let this little book be thy friend, if, owing to fortune or through thine own fault, thou canst not find a dearer companion.



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  • The result of Phillips’ research from the 1970’s was the recommendation that stories about suicide not be placed on the front page of newspapers.

    This will or could take us, ultimately, to Fahrenheit 451. It has to start somewhere.



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