Saturday 24 August 2019

Netflix removes graphic suicide scene from 13 Reasons Why following two years of controversy

Katherine Langford plays Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why (Beth Dubber/Netflix)
Katherine Langford plays Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why (Beth Dubber/Netflix)
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Netflix has deleted a scene depicting the suicide of a character from 13 Reasons Why, two years after the series was released.

An original production for the global streaming service, the series is based on Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult novel of the same name, and tells the story of a teenage girl who takes her own life, leaving behind a series of tape recordings detailing why.

The controversial scene, showing the character Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) taking her own life, featured in the finale of the first series.  There are currently two series available to watch on the service with a third in the offing.

Since 13 Reasons Why arrived in May 2017, it has been criticised by suicide prevention and mental health support groups for the scene and for allegedly glamourising suicide for a vulnerable young audience.

Netflix released a statement on Twitter outlining the reasons behind their decision to remove the scene.

“We’ve heard from many young people that 13 Reasons Why encouraged them to start conversations about difficult issues like depression and suicide and get help – often for the first time," it reads.

“As we prepare to launch season three later this summer, we’ve been mindful about the ongoing debate around the show.

“So, on the advice of medical experts, including Dr Christine Moutier, Chief Medical Officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we’ve decided with creator Brian Yorkey and the producers of 13 Reasons Why to edit the scene in which Hannah takes her own life from season one.”

Read more: '13 Reasons Why' two years on - what has been the impact of controversial Netflix series?

Research has shown that how suicide is referenced or depicted in the media and in drama can influence vulnerable people in a negative way and it is particularly important to tread carefully when content is aimed at a youth audience.  Netflix initially defended the decision to include the scene and took extensive steps to reduce any negative impact on young people watching.

These included giving certain episodes a rating of 18 in the UK and Ireland (parents can set parental controls on a Netflix account), including a cast message at the beginning, and content warning cards on individual episodes, as well as providing a resource website where viewers can get additional help and resources, including the helpline for Samaritans.  There is also a discussion guide for the show and individual topic videos.

However, the series came under increased scrutiny earlier this year following the publication of a study by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry which found a 28.9 per cent increase in suicide rates among those aged 10 to 17 in the US in April 2017, one month after the series debuted on Netflix.

The number of suicides among that group in that month was greater than any other month over the five-year period examined. Looking at historical and season trends, there were 195 more suicides than expected in the nine months after the show made its debut.

While the study found a correlation it did not prove causation, however.  Among the issues hampering the study in finding causation is the fact that the researchers did not know whether or not these young people had watched the series.  Suicide and suicidal feelings are incredibly complex and seldom the result of a single factor - it is likely to have several interrelated causes.

Speaking about the study, a Netflix spokesperson said at the time, "We've seen this study and are looking into the research, which conflicts with last week’s study from the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a critically important topic and we have worked hard to ensure that we handle this sensitive issue responsibly.”

The Pennsylvania study referenced by Netflix deals with the second series of the show, which is different to the first in that it focuses on one character’s response to his classmate’s suicide.

Netflix's decision to remove the suicide scene from the first series has been welcomed by Samaritans.

Lorna Fraser, Executive Lead Samaritans’ Media Advisory Service, said, “We welcome Netflix’s decision to edit out the suicide scene from the first season of 13 Reasons Why. We raised our concerns over the content and have been working with the Netflix team here in the UK to provide advice on the safe portrayal of suicide, including viewer support and signposting to helplines such as Samaritans.

“While covering difficult topics in drama can help to increase understanding and encourage people to seek help, it’s important this is done in a responsible way, due to the evidenced risks associated with covering this topic in the media. Programme makers should always seek advice from experts on the portrayal of suicide, to ensure any risk to vulnerable viewers is minimised. Samaritans publishes Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide and has been working with UK media for over two decades, providing advice on how to cover this topic safely.  

“We would encourage anyone who is struggling to reach out for help. People can contact Samaritans for free from any phone at any time of the day or night on 116 123, text 087 260 9090, or email jo@samaritans.ie or go to www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch of Samaritans.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please contact Samaritans on freephone 116 123, text 087 260 9090 (standard rates apply) or email jo@samaritans.ie or contact Aware helpline 1800 80 48 48 or Pieta House on 1800 247 247.

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