Online Public Health Resource Puts '13 Reasons Why' Into Context

May 31, 2018

A University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist is one of the primary collaborators on a new, public health toolkit that presents important information related to the Netflix program “13 Reasons Why,” a teen drama that depicts events surrounding a high school girl’s suicide.

The second season came out earlier this month. 

Pitt’s Sansea Jacobson specializes in suicide prevention and adolescent depression and said when the first season of “13 Reasons Why” premiered, many in her field were concerned by things like the graphic depiction of how a main character kills herself.

“We know that dramatic portrayals of suicide on screen can increase subsequent risk of suicide and suicide attempts,” said Jacobson. "In fact, that's what we saw."

After the first season was released, one study found a 26 percent increase in the Google query "How to commit suicide." Another study showed that after the first 41 days of the show's premiere, there was a statically significant increase of emergeny department visits of youth who were presenting with depression symptoms or suicide ideation

This free, online toolkit was created to help prevent tragedies with content that aims to help people understand the show's senstive themes of suicide, sexual consent, and depression. There are different sections targeted at youth, parents, educators, clinicians and media professionals. 

The resource also contains science-based guidelines and suggestions, like not marathon-watching too many episodes at once.

“It really lends itself to psychological saturation and doesn’t give us a lot of time for youth and watchers to process and contextualize the information,” said Jacobson. 

Jacobson said while the second season is an improvement over the first, at times the show still misses the mark. Such as showing an inaccurate portrayal of psychotherapy or a scene were a student acts heroically, but dangerously in an active shooter situation.

But over all Jacobson said she's encouraged. 

"'13 Reasons Why' undeniabley opened up dialouge on senstive topics," she said. "If well done, media targeted to teens could really be compelling, well also interweving messaging that destigmatizes mental illness." 

90.5 WESA receives funding from the University of Pittsburgh.