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Mental health experts have criticised the return of the Netflix drama '13 Reasons Why', expressing concern that the second series of the drama about a teenager’s suicide is due for release as summer exam stress peaks.
The story of 17-year-old Hannah Baker’s life and death continues on Friday 18 May when the second series is made available online just as UK students are doing their GCSEs and A-levels.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists described the timing as callous, noting that suicide rates among young people typically rise during exam season and warning that the Netflix drama could trigger a further increase. Teachers’ leaders said the show’s return was disturbing and regrettable, particularly given ongoing concerns about a crisis in young people’s mental health.
The US-based series was a big hit for Netflix despite – or perhaps because of – the controversy surrounding the suicide storyline. The first series of 13 episodes depicted Hannah’s friends listening to tapes she had made for each of them explaining the difficulties she faced that had prompted her to kill herself. The second series uses Polaroid photos as a framing device, and has the tagline “The truth is developing”.
Responding to concerns from mental health campaigners, the makers of the series have produced a video that will play at the start of the series, warning viewers about the challenging nature of some of the themes and directing them to sources of help.
“By shedding a light on these difficult topics, we hope our show can help viewers start a conversation,” says Katherine Langford, who stars as Hannah Baker, in the video. Alisha Boe, who plays Jessica Davis, says: “But if you are struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you, or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult.”
Supporters of the first series said it was an accurate portrayal of high school life that would spark conversations between parents and their children and encourage viewers to seek information on depression, suicide, bullying and sexual assault.
Critics accused the series of romanticising and sensationalising teenage suicide. The Samaritans, psychiatrists and mental health campaigners all said it could prompt troubled young people to copy the suicide of its central character.
Dr Helen Rayner, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said she had the same concerns about the second series and was particularly alarmed by the timing of its release. “It’s well known within children’s services that there’s an increase in completed suicides and suicide attempts during the exam season. This could cause an increase in suicide rates,” she said.
“I feel extremely disappointed and angry. This glamourises suicide and makes it seductive. It also makes it a possibility for young people – it puts the thought in their mind that this is something that’s possible. It’s a bad programme that should not be out there, and it’s the timing.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Lecturers, said the new series and the timing of its release in the UK raised questions about broadcasters’ responsibilities. “This is grim. I would share the concerns of parents and teachers, given that we already know the levels of anxiety young people feel during the exam season.”
Research has shown that suicides among children and young adults peak at the beginning of exam season. A decade-long fall in the number of youth suicides has reversed in recent years and more young people now die that way than from any other cause.
A total of 922 people aged 25 and under took their own lives in England and Wales in 2014 and 2015. Suicide now accounts for 14% of all deaths among 10- to 19-year-olds and 21% of deaths among 20- to 34-year-olds.
The NSPCC urged young people with concerns to contact Childline on 0800 1111 or visit .
Ged Flynn, the chief executive of Papyrus, a charity that seeks to prevent suicide among young people, said parents needed to be alert. “If a person is already considering suicide, a depiction of suicide can validate their thinking and make suicidal behaviour a legitimate option for people,” he said.
“The problem with Netflix is that it’s online. You can’t regulate it. Social responsibility should have been part of their risk management. They should ask the question: why are we making this film if it’s not to save lives but to sensationalise suicide? It’s irresponsible.”
Flynn also expressed concerns about the timing of the series launch. “The timing of the second season is particularly unfortunate for a UK audience, with most of our young people entering into exam season.
“Papyrus has a clear message for exam season – #NoSilencePlease. If you see a young person who may be thinking about suicide, break that silence and ask them openly, directly and with respect and care: are you thinking about suicide? It can help to save a life.”
Netflix were unable to provide a statement in response to concerns raised about the new series, but highlighted a recent blogpost by Brian Wright, vice president of Netflix original series, in which he details additional resources which have been made available to support viewers of the second series.
These include a set of videos featuring cast members addressing topics depicted in the show; a downloadable discussion guide for parents and teenagers, and an after-show discussion including actors and experts in fields of suicide prevention and sexual assault which will play automatically after the last episode of season two.
By Sally Weale
11 May 2018