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What '13 Reasons Why' gets wrong about suicide

Rumors continue to swirl around Hollywood that “13 Reasons Why” will get a second season. Leading suicide expert Greg Hudnall said he’d advise against it. Here's why.
Rumors continue to swirl around Hollywood that “13 Reasons Why” will get a second season. Leading suicide expert Greg Hudnall said he’d advise against it. Here's why.
Screenshot, YouTube

SALT LAKE CITY - Rumors continue to swirl around Hollywood that “13 Reasons Why” will get a second season.

The Netflix series, which tells the story of Hannah Baker, a teen who leaves behind a set of cassette tapes that explain the reasons why she committed suicide, has received nationwide attention for both its approach to a sensitive topic and its failure to really capture what happens to suicidal teens. suicide expert Greg Hudnall said he’d advise against a second season because of how damaging the show can be for young people.

Hudnall, a former high school principal, has been involved with suicide prevention for the past 20 years and has responded to more than 25 suicides, each heartbreaking. This week he's at the American Association of Suicidology in Phoenix, Arizona, and has been approached by experts, parents and school staff, who ask him questions about the show and how it affects family life.

Hudnall said he hasn't watched the show. He doesn't plan to, either, because he said it sensationalizes suicide.

"It's a difficult show to watch. And I've heard that from a lot of people,” he told the Deseret News in a phone interview.

Bullying and sexual assault are prevalent in many high schools, he said. LGBT students struggle to fit in. Students across the country and Utah, like those at Lone Peak High School in Alpine, worry about academics, he said. The problems are real.

“I see it in the culture in Utah, and it breaks my heart,” he told the Deseret News.

Youth suicide rates in the Beehive State have tripled since 2007, with 8.5 out of every 100,000 young people between ages 10 and 17 committing suicide in 2014, according to the Utah Department of Health. In total, 86 Utah youths committed suicide between 2012 to 2014.

Suicide remains as the third-largest cause of death for those 10 to 24 years old, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The cast and crew have defended the show. Brandon Flynn, who plays basketball star Justin on the show, told The Hollywood Reporter that suicide is a taboo subject, which is why there’s been some controversy.

Flynn said that criticism over Hannah’s suicide scene — which shows her slicing her wrists with razor blades inside a bathtub — is graphic because it’s meant to be something to talk about.

But Hudnall told the Deseret News the show gets some things wrong about suicide.

"The more we talk about it,” he said, “the more we sensationalize it."

Here are some aspects of suicide the show gets wrong, according to Hudnall.

• It offers no solutions or role models.

Hudnall said that the show doesn’t offer any solutions on how to fight suicide since it shows teens feeling guilty over Hannah's death. He said viewers identify with the characters who bully or antagonize Hannah, rather than Hannah herself.

“It shows what not to do,” he said.

And, Hudnall said, the show doesn't have a good role model for hurting teens to embrace.

"It doesn't seem very uplifting and building and supportive,” he said.

• It doesn’t educate people about suicide.

Hudnall said the show doesn’t accurately portray suicide.

Hannah's journey to suicide takes place over a more than six month period. Little events in the show all lead to her eventual death.

"Young people don't plan as often about the suicide as the show portrays it,” he said. “A lot of times in a lot of those situation, we see the suicide coming in within a 24- to 48-hour window.

Instead, the show decides to draw out her eventual death and dramatize it, ultimately sensationalizing the act.

"I'm all about educating people on prevention," he told the Deseret News. "I'm all about suicide preventation. What I'm not about is sensationalizing suicide."

• It could lead to more deaths.

Hudnall said the show’s depiction of suicide risks contagion — when publicity over a suicide leads to more suicides.

“Publicity surrounding a suicide has been repeatedly and definitively linked to a subsequent increase in suicide, especially among young people. Analysis suggests that at least 5 percent of youth suicides are influenced by contagion,” The New York Times reported.

Hudnall said "13 Reasons Why" may create more contagion.

"The more we sensationalize suicide, the more suicides we have,” he said.

He compared the show to the death of Robin Williams, when there was an uptick in suicide cases after the comedic actor died by suicide. Indeed, Williams’ suicide left an impact on suicide prevention hotlines. As Newsweek reported, hotlines saw a high spike in calls and conversations after Williams’ death.

A similar event happened in 1994 after Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain committed suicide.

Hudnall said he’s spoken with two or three experts from call centers who said that there has been an uptick in calls related to “13 Reasons Why.”

Not all who struggle commit suicide

Hudnall said the show makes it seem like anyone who struggles will commit suicide. But there are plenty of examples of people who struggle and survive.

"What this series portrays is too much to the edge,” he said. “There is no hope."

This, he said, is harmful for impressionable teens.

"I think in the long run it can cause more trauma and more pain for child,” he said.

For more information and resources, see Hope4Utah here.