The first time I considered watching the controversial Netflix teen drama 13 Reasons Why was during an emergency room interview with a teenage boy. He said the show opened a window for him to contemplate suicide as an option. This was so compelling to me that after months of ignoring the chatter I heard about the show, I watched the first two seasons to try to understand how it might be influencing my patients’ mental health. I wondered, have media depictions of suicide always held this influence, or was this something unique to this new hit series? In an attempt to characterize a shift in media portrayal of suicide over time, I decided to compare the movie, The Virgin Suicides (released in 2000), and the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why (released in 2017). While The Virgin Suicides, set in the 1970s, chronicles the mysterious suicides of the 5 Lisbon sisters as told by a group of infatuated neighborhood boys, 13 Reasons Why focuses on the singular teen suicide of Hannah Baker as told through the cassette tapes she left behind. Each tape contains one reason why she decided to end her life, centered around the people whom she felt hurt her most. Her classmates are similarly showcased in the aftermath of her death, with a focus on a boy named Clay. The allure of The Virgin Suicides hinges on adult nostalgia for 70’s suburbia as watchers wade in the hazy, mysterious cloud surrounding the Lisbon sister’s suicides. Conversely, in 13 Reasons Why, there is no mystery as Hannah unabashedly details how the hurt she endured from her peers influenced her decision to end her life.
Screen media portrayals of suicide have become increasingly dramatized and explicit over time, which is a concern because of known contagion effects. - Dr. Jane Harness