TV Drama on Teen Suicide Prompts Spike in Online Searches

Suicide depiction can be a dangerous influence

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“13 Reasons Why,” the Netflix series that depicts the struggles and suicide of a fictional teenage girl, has heightened awareness of suicide in negative and positive ways, a recent study suggests.

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The research, published in a research letter online, shows that the release of the series was associated with an uptick in the number of online searches for suicide methods — as did searches for suicide hotlines and suicide prevention.

The researchers examined Google Trends data for searches that mentioned the word suicide between March 31, 2017, when Netflix released the series, and April 18, 2017. The study excluded unrelated or unclear terms.

The researchers compared those results to expected search volumes if the show had never aired. Expected volumes were estimated with the help of search trends from Jan. 15 to March 30.

Results show suicide searches were 19 percent higher in the days following the show’s release.

Searching for information

The results are concerning, but not surprising, says psychiatrist Joseph Austerman, DO, of Cleveland Clinic Children’s. He did not participate in the research.

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“Any time that suicide is mentioned in the media, especially a celebrity suicide, we’ve known for a long time that teenagers will start to look into this information,” Dr. Austerman says. “It actually can create a suicide attempt in teenagers.” 

The research letter notes that it’s unclear if any of the online searches actually resulted in a suicide attempt, but Dr. Austerman says there was a nationwide bump in teenagers visiting emergency departments after watching episodes of the show that depicted the main character’s suicide attempt.

A teaching moment

Materials depicting suicide can be a dangerous influence to a vulnerable teen who is hurting, but can also provide a teaching moment for parents, Dr. Austerman says.

“When you’re watching shows like “13 Reasons” you want to talk about what could have happened and the positive supports that you can engender and have an honest conversation about the dangers of suicide and that this is not how you solve problems,” Dr. Austerman says. 

Red flags that a teen is struggling emotionally include sudden reclusiveness, being unusually argumentative, or talk of feeling sad, Dr. Austerman says.

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Parents who think their child may be suicidal need to get help immediately, Dr. Austerman says.

Complete results of the study can be found in JAMA.

Photo: kasinv/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus

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