The season one finale of 13 reasons why (13RW) aired on March 31st, 2017 and featured the graphic suicide of the main character Hannah Baker. In response to criticisms, Netflix later removed this scene from the episode. Critics argued that the vivid depiction of Hannah slitting her wrists would lead to copycat suicides, particularly due to the vulnerable nature of the show’s target audience of teens and preteens. While any depiction of suicide in the media, fictional or real, has the potential to inspire imitations, 13RW’s plot has been described as “the ultimate fantasy of teen suicidal ideation.” The show presents suicide as not only a reasonable solution to Hannah’s bullying but the only solution. It depicts mental health professionals as incompetent and unhelpful and offers no commentary on mental illnesses like depression or anxiety that can be managed and treated in non-fatal ways. Worst of all, it portrays suicide as a way of exacting revenge on those who have hurt you, an idea that is likely to be quite appealing to those who have been harmed by abusers.
However, this is not a column for critiquing television shows. It is a column for science, for questioning the beliefs we have taken for granted and for realizing which of our assumed truths should not have been assumed as such. Before 13RW, it never occurred to me to question whether copycat suicides are a real phenomenon. But the fervent discourse around this show has led me to the body of evidence regarding suicide contagion, so, let’s dig on in and see if copycat suicides truly are the risk they are made out to be.