'13 Reasons Why,' other media partially to blame for local rise in suicidal thinking?

Zoe Greszler • Jun 4, 2019 at 7:00 PM

Since the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” premiered, there’s been much discussion about the content of the show and the impact it could have on an uptick in suicides.

A recent study conducted by Nationwide Children's Hospital found that about “195 more youth suicide deaths than expected were associated with the television series ‘13 Reasons Why’ in the nine months immediately following the series’ release.”

The series, based on the novel by Jay Asher, portrays a high school boy who tries to find all the people and reasons that contributed to a girl’s suicide — and how he played a role. It documents many of the warning signs of suicide and the effects of vicious cyberbullying.


A local impact

A separate study conducted by Ohio University and University of Toledo profiles the changing face of suicide within the state over the past several years. The OU study found that more than 15,000 suicide deaths were reported in Ohio over 10 years — an increase of nearly 24 percent. 

On a more local level, Huron County had the 32nd highest suicide rate among the 88 counties in Ohio. However, in a 39-county region that includes all adjacent counties, as well as everything to the south and west, extending as far south as Franklin County, Huron County had the fifth highest rate.

According to the OU study, while the state saw a national annual average suicide rate of 12 per 100,000 people between 2008 and 2017, the county saw a bit more — a 14.42 per 100,000 ratio. It found suicide claimed 3,220 years of life in Huron County in that time. 

Yearly, overdoses account for about 12.8 percent of suicide deaths locally, while firearms account for 52.3 percent. Other mechanisms besides a firearm account for 34.9 percent. 

Rick Hodges, director over the team overseeing the study, said that 526,501 years of life expectancy was lost in Ohio between 2008 to 2017 due to suicide. He noted this sobering figure is largely attributed to the increase in suicide rates of individuals 29 years old and younger.


‘13 Reasons’ to blame locally?

The studies’ data wasn’t surprising to Family Life Counseling’s Dr. Steven Burggraf, who said he believes there’s a correlation between the recent uptick in suicide attempts among young people and media. 

“The constant bombardment of feedback on a person, that often times turns out to be kind of ugly,” he said. “Kids are constantly comparing themselves with likes and dislikes, their pictures and their instant feedbacks. Adolescents at that stage (are) engaged in egocentric thinking, their thinking centers around themselves and they’re very self conscious. Social media and this constant bombardment of input influences that and I think is a significant factor (in the increased suicide rates).”

Burggraf said that’s shown some in “13 Reasons,” but added the series may be doing more harm than good by romanticizing and nearly creating an “occult-like following of that kind of thinking.”

While the about “195 more youth suicide deaths than expected” reflects a national number, he said that doesn’t mean the show had no effect locally. In fact, quite the opposite. Burggraf said while working with a smaller community means the number effected would be less, “the impact is no less stark in dynamic in a person that does watch these shows.”

“I think any person (who) would be exposed to that kind of media, it’s really making (the viewer) desensitized and romanticizing that whole dynamic of suicide or self-harm — it’s going to have an impact,” Burggraf said.


Other suicidal influences

The doctor said the national, state-wide and local trend cannot solely be blamed on media. Anxiety, he said, also is a “prominant factor.” 

Burggraf said teachers tell him and and his collegaues at Family Life that students “frequently” go to the office seeking help. They talk about being “overwhelmed and filled with worry about life in general.

“That’s more prevalent than ever before,” he said. 

Burggraf said the news is negative by nature and the ability to share things instantly has taken its toll in some cases in adolescents and adults alike. The negative reports of other places near and far around the world cause many to “generalize that to themself and to think world is a dangerous place.”

“I think too it’s because the world seems dangerous and bad, because of the constant influx of calamity,” Burggraf said.

“One person asked me, ‘Is there any country that’s not rioting or fighting or threatening to fight with another country?’ Again, I do think the negativity, the sense of calamity and crisis that we’re constantly faced with, it wears people down.”

The mental health industry and community in general is “much more aware” of the trauma many face, he said, and the effects trauma has on a person. Burggraf said many people in this situation have a tendency to try to think of “a solution to solve the pain they’re in.”

“Obviously suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but it seems like a solution to that pain. It’s an unfortunate solution to come to the that conclusion,’ he said. “So I think for many, it’s a matter of ‘What is the purpose or life and living? The world is such a dire place.’”

Burggraf added that reports of celebrities self-harming or committing suicide “gets a kind of momentum going” as well.

“There’s an element of romanticism and people will follow suit,” he said.

Such trends are disturbing to mental health organizations across Ohio, including the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (MHAS)

“Suicide is a serious public health issue,” director Lori Criss said.

“Tackling this issue in Ohio will require collaborative efforts that cross state government, private partners, community mental health and addiction boards and providers, colleges and universities and others.”

Joan Englund, executive director of the Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Advocacy Coalition, said the OU and UT studies shine an important light on a growing need for suicide treatment and prevention services.

“Local, state, and federal decisions and actions can reduce the growing number of Ohio suicides. In order to help change the current upward trajectory, all Ohioans must have timely access to appropriate mental health and substance use disorder prevention, treatment and support services,” Englund said.


A better solution

Burggraf urged anyone with feelings or thoughts of self-harm, depression or suicide to reach out, talk to someone about those thoughts and feelings and keep a big picture view.

“Recognize that any particular dilemma or problem that you’re facing — there are solutions,” he said.

“Often times suicide is seen as a solution. It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. You need to that hanging on and reaching out for help; there are others that will help you get through those issues. Things can get better. (Others need to) help them discern or at least identify some hope for the future that it can get better.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, warning signs may include threats or comments about suicide, increased alcohol and drug use, aggressive behavior, social withdrawal, dramatic mood swings, talking, writing or thinking about death and impulsive or reckless behavior.

If you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Anyone who needs help or support or knows of someone who could use mental-health assistance — whether in a crisis situation or not — also can call Mental Health Addiction Services at 419-668-8649 or Family Life Counseling at 567-560-3584.

The national suicide hotline is 1-800-826-1306. Those seeking support or who are contemplating suicide can anonymously text “4hope” to 741741 and should receive a response within five minutes. 

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