Netflix Research Surveys The Impact of '13 Reasons Why' & Here’s Why That’s So Important

Practically every college student relies on a healthy amount of self-care as an excuse to help us procrastinate last-minute cramming to help postpone our midweek mental breakdown. While our obsession with a hardy self-care regime is never-ending, talking about our actual mental health can be more arduous—especially when it comes to candidly discussing our mental health with our friendship, family and SOs. Celebrities like Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez have continuously fought against the ever prevalent mental health stigma; however, it’s difficult to ignore that this mental health stigma can still have powerful leverage over our lives. After all, Mariah Carey recently opened up about how stigmas about mental health made her hesitant to open up about her bipolar II disorder, and these same stigmas also prevented her from seeking treatment and accepting her diagnosis. Though celebs have helped ignite the necessary mental health conversation, shows like 13 Reasons Why have allowed some of us to continue this discussion. As the second season of 13 Reasons Why gears up to premiere on May 18, showrunners have used extensive studies and criticism to create a healthier interpretation of mental health in season 2.

Shortly after 13 Reasons Why debuted last year, parents and mental health organizations alike criticized the Netflix series for how it portrayed suicide and other mental health topics. During an interview with ABC News, the executive director for Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), Dan Reidenberg, claimed that 13 Reasons Why might cause “more harm than any good.”

“The show actually doesn't present a viable alternative to suicide. The show doesn't talk about mental illness or depression, doesn't name those words. My thoughts about the series are that its probably done more harm than any good,” Reidenberg added.

Granted, 13 Reasons Why did portray a rather gruesome depiction of Hannah Baker’s suicide, other mental health experts recognize that the series could actually help prevent suicide. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the Los Angeles area Dr. Gary Brown, PhD, LMFT and FAPA, tells Her Campus that parental guidance could help healthily navigate these scenes and episodes.

“On the one hand, I think some of the scenes are incredibly graphic, and especially Hannah's suicide. While each child or teenager is different in terms of their maturity and levels of emotional stability, I would recommend caution when exposing them to this series. I do not think that younger children should be watching this at all. This is definitely not for pre-teens. It is also not something that teenagers who have extreme vulnerability to depression should watch alone,” Dr. Brown says.

Dr. Brown continues, “Parents should preview each episode and try to make the best-informed decision they can based upon their assessment of their own child's ability to absorb some of the more graphic scenes. I would also advise parents talk to their teenagers about this in advance so that their child understands their reasoning for pre-screening. When talking to teenagers, parents, and other healthcare professionals, it is clear that there is nothing near unanimous consensus one way or the other about this.”

Related: How to Find the Right Therapist For You

Albeit 13 Reasons Why does expose young people, who can be impressionable, to touchy topics about mental health, watching the series with a supportive group or a guardian can help young people learn about mental health topics in a controlled environment. Regardless, Netflix executives and 13 Reasons Why showrunners haven’t ignored the criticism about the way the series depicts suicide.

Instead of ignoring these valid critiques from notable mental health experts, the showrunners used this commentary to create a more mindful and accurate representation of various mental health topics in the show’s impending season. Building off the critiques that 13 Reasons Why doesn’t illustrate a healthy picture of suicide and depression for its younger viewers, Netflix hired Northwestern University researchers to investigate the show’s impact more thoroughly.

On March 31, 2017, Hannah Baker introduced us to a binge-worthy Netflix series that was packed with difficult mental health topics. These sensitive subjects provoked countless reviews from 13 Reasons Why viewers, which eventually inspired Netflix to delve into what viewers thought of the show.

As opinions about 13 Reasons Why continue to accumulate, Netflix hired researchers from the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University to canvass approximately 5,000 individuals to see how they interpreted the controversial series. According to Netflix, 71 percent of young adults thought 13 Reasons Why was a relatable show and even allowed them to feel more confident understanding the topics presented in the show.

While the impact-heavy study notes that roughly 75 percent of the viewers used their newfound mental health cognizance to be more respectful of people in their own life who might be struggling with mental health, Netflix has created additional resources for 13 Reasons Why fans. (After all, the series can only dissect a finite amount of topics about mental health each season.)

Nevertheless, certain school representatives have warned parents that 13 Reasons Why romanticizes suicide and depression. While Beyond The Reasons also offers Netflix bingers more incite on mental health topics (in addition to the affiliated website, which is enriched with advice from mental health experts), watching a statistically relatable show with a parent can make young people feel more comfortable to divulge their mental health qualms with their parents (which could also help parents identify mental health issues that they might otherwise be unaware of).

Though certain organizations want 13 Reasons Why to postpone its second season, Dr. Brown notes that 13 Reasons Why is vital for dispelling harmful mental health stigmas and could, ultimately, help prevent suicide in young people. “Here is a typical scenario: A parent is referred to me by a local pediatrician. She, her husband, and their teenager decided to watch the series together. After bout watching several episodes of the season, their teenager mentioned that they were thinking about hurting themselves and were at the beginning stages of planning their own death. Neither parent had any idea that their child was in this suffering so much that they were considering ending their life,” Dr. Brown says.

“This has happened more than once in my practice and that of my colleagues who also work with teenagers and young adults,” Dr. Brown prefaced. “This series was the impetus for them to seek counseling for themselves and their child. Had they not watched 13 Reasons Why and then immediately sought treatment, their child may have died,” Dr. Brown expands. Without 13 Reasons Why, the teenager in this real scenario may have never felt comfortable enough to discuss their mental health with their parents candidly.

“I do realize that there is another side to this coin. There are some who are understandably concerned that their teenager will see the series, and decide that suicide is a viable option. Obviously, there is much debate and little consensus about this series,” Dr. Brown adds.

Related: How to Protect Your Mental Health During Exam Season

Because exposing a young person to a series riddled with commentary about depression could also, in theory, introduce suicide to a young person, it’s important to use 13 Reasons Why as a conversation starter—even if that conversation includes uncomfortable topics.

In addition to prescreening each episode for potentially triggering material, Dr. Brown has some advice for parents who might be hesitant about watching the show with their children. “There are multiple ways for teenagers and parents to access educational resources, as well as healthy tips, to better inform themselves. The show might want to end each episode with an extended ‘freeze frame’ with resources that could be noted by parents and teenagers watching this series. A freeze frame could give enough time to accomplish this.  In addition, I would continue to promote the National Suicide Prevention hotline,” Dr. Brown says.

After all, the main reason mental health is such an awkward topic to discuss is due to the stigmas that plague issues like depression, anxiety and suicide. “At least 20 percent of the general population will experience some forms of anxiety and depression in their lifetime. The more we can become educated about mental health, and understand that otherwise normal people can sometimes suffer from fear, embarrassment, shame and sadness resulting from bullying, sexual assault, body shaming, and other forms of abuse. It might be interesting for this show in particular, to also highlight the genetic aspects of depression as well as the psychosocial stressors that the show portrays so realistically,” Dr. Brown adds.

Whether or not 13 Reasons Why will drive young people to suicide is conclusively inconclusive. Regardless, showrunners for the series plan to use the season two to advocate for mental health awareness. Brian Wright, the Vice President of Original Series at Netflix, notes that “the hope is that the steps we're taking now will help support more meaningful conversations as Season 2 rolls out later this year.”

Aside from advocating for mental health and combating the stigmas that infest these topics,13 Reasons Why provides teenagers, who are more susceptible to depression and anxiety, a method to comfortably talk to their parents about their mental health. While 13 Reasons Why doesn’t necessarily offer viewers a complete encyclopedia on mental health and subsequent issues, the show can be a mechanism for families to talk about represented topics in greater detail.

Although 13 Reasons Why features distressing themes about mental health in every episode, the series helps normalize discussions about mental health. Thus, the series could help normalize treatment for common mental health diagnoses like depression and anxiety. “This series is a game changer and a life-saver... and needs to continue.  If the series is canceled, then we are sending a very dangerous message to our children—‘We can't talk about this’,” Dr. Brown says.