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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