It’s Mental Health Awareness month and that is either the perfect—or most imperfect—time for the release of Season 2 of the wildly popular and controversial Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why.”
Last year, parents and schools were caught off guard when suddenly teens and tweens were binge watching a new 13-episode series that included graphic rape and suicide content, including a prolonged and very bloody scene in which the main character takes her own life. As I began to hear of middle schoolers watching the series, I became concerned and curious and watched all 13 episodes over the course of two days.
I subsequently wrote about the series in an effort to at least get the show on the radar of parents and school personnel.
Season 2 of the series released today, and while it is clear that the producers of the show did consider much of the criticism and outcry by parents and mental health experts to heart, there is still reason for all of us to remain vigilant.
In season 2, each new episode will be preceded by a “trigger warning” and followed by new after-show content titled “Beyond the Reasons,” in which actors, experts and educators will break down the darker plot threads of each installment. This appears to be an attempt by Netflix to help young viewers process what they have just seen and could prove to be especially important for viewers who are middle and high schoolers watching the series alone, perhaps without even the knowledge of a single adult.
Obviously the hope is that viewers will stay tuned for the post-show discussions instead of just jumping to the next episode, though that is the very definition of binge watching so it’s hard to be optimistic.
Mental health experts across the globe have formed a coalition called SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) and issued an international alert regarding the release of season 2.
The statement says, in part:
While we hope that the series will encourage important conversations and more positive, healthy behaviors, we also are concerned that the series could have negative outcomes for some youth.
The impetus for the alert and the “13 Reasons Why Toolkit,” at least in part, are the findings of a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association that “found a significant increase in internet searches on suicide following the release of season 1.”
According to The Atlantic, “Google queries about suicide rose by almost 20 percent in the 19 days after the show came out, representing between 900,000 and 1.5 million more searches than usual regarding the subject.”
And from USA Today:
The proportion of [doctor] visits involving suicidal ideation was stable between January and March 2017 (about 0.19 percent of all visits). Following the release of “13 Reasons Why, the proportion of visits involving suicidal ideation increased sharply to 0.27 percent of visits in April and 0.29 percent of visits in May—a more than 40 percent relative increase. A similar pattern wasn’t observed in 2016.
These findings are worrisome. To be sure, the observed increase in doctors’ visits for suicidal ideation could reflect an increase in the number of teens seeking help as a result of viewing the show.
Even so, when the increase is taken together with the documented jump in online searches for ways to commit suicide, the alternative explanation of contagion in suicidal thinking is impossible to ignore. Unfortunately, national mortality statistics lag by several years, so we don’t know whether actual suicides increased after the show’s 2017 release.
So buckle up everybody. It’s hard to imagine that today’s release of season 2 won’t have people logging in to Netflix en masse and at least this time we know that that part of what makes the show so gripping—addictive even—is precisely the fact that it deals with topics that are difficult, dark, and yes, very real.
Thankfully, teachers, parents, and school leaders will be better prepared this time around and Netflix’s efforts to do a better job in providing supports and resources for viewers are a welcome change.
But at the end of the day, this show is no joke and we have an obligation to be plugged in and paying attention—and asking— if our kids and other kids we know and care about are watching it and the impact it may—or may not—be having on them. This will take a village.