Professor, Students Discuss Suicide, "13 Reasons Why"

Dec 7, 2018

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report shows suicides and drug overdoses are contributing to a decline in the average life expectancy of Americans.   U.S. government data indicates the suicide death rate last year was the highest it’s been in at least half a century.

Meanwhile, a third season of the teen drama web television series “13 Reasons Why” is to be released in 2019.  The show focuses on teen suicide issues.  The intense on-line series has prompted debate regarding its impact on viewers.

“13 Reasons Why” examines a 17 year old high school student and his deceased friend, who has killed herself after having to face a culture of gossip and sexual assault at her high school and a lack of peer support.  A box of cassette tapes recorded prior to her death detail 13 reasons why she ended her life.

University of Kentucky Assistant Professor of Epidemiology Sabrina Brown has been involved in population-based studies, including the differences between suicide in men and women and intimate partner violence and homicides-suicide.  Brown watched the first season of “13 Reasons Why.” “I was so infuriated by it, I had to actually run on a treadmill while I was watching it because it angered me so much.  It just felt like it was undoing decades of work that those of us who work in suicide prevention have done,” said Brown.

In response to concern from some mental health professionals about graphic depictions of suicide and rape, the distributor added a so-called “warning card” and a video that plays at the start of each season warning viewers about its mature themes.  Brown doesn’t feel that is enough. “Hollywood can spin other issues in fantasy and other areas, but I think suicide is a very delicate issue and if you talk to a family member who’s lost a teenager to suicide and the devastation.  I don’t know that there is a death that is more devastating than suicide in families.”

Brown played a key role in developing the Kentucky Violent Death Reporting System.  She says she participated in “ride alongs” to death scenes with coroners which Brown says are typically horrible.  The UK professor says the TV show depiction of the suicide was not realistic.

Brown says some teens may consider suicide as an “option”, but that she says demonstrates the importance of introducing an alternative to wanting to die by suicide. “The inspiration message to live to understand how important each and every one of us are and how much we offer other people, that we may be in a dark place and not realize how much we impact other people and if we made a decision like that, how tragic other people’s lives would be,” Brown note

Eastern Kentucky University students gathered at dining tables earlier this week.  Many of those questioned that day had seen the show “13 Reasons Why.”

Brandon Annen, a freshman from Chicago, thought it was, “a pretty good show.” “It really lets you know some things that goes on in high school and schools, but overall I think it’s pretty emotional I would say,” said Annen.

Annen added, again in his words, “It touches you, you really get involved with the characters.”

At another table, Louisville freshman Kristin Childress believes the sexual assaults depicted  od the suicidal teen caused her to take her life.  Kassidy Holiday of Salyersville added “the stuff that happened to her would cause anybody to react that way.”  And McKenzie Castle, also of Salyersville says it was an eye opening experience. “I also think it’s sad, but I also think it’s very important to see stuff like that, because it’s almost like it’s not real until you actually see that it is.”

Northern Kentucky freshman Josie Daley called the show, “a little dark”, adding she thought it was going too far to portray the suicide.  Amber Lewis of Cincinnati worries about the impact on young viewers. “I know kids that weren’t supposed to watch it.  They like snuck behind their parents and like they watched it.  So, I think it put stuff in their head.  And, honestly, I talked to teenagers younger than me and they said they can’t like stopped thinking about it still to this day,” said Lewis.

And Alex White of Florence, also a freshman, has watched both seasons of the show.  He said there was an over-dramatization of the process, but added there was prominent messaging about the show’s content. “I still think it brings important light to the situation and it’s never pretty and it’s never good for anyone.  In the show, it shows everyone is all torn up about it, especially her parents.  I don’t think that’s emphasized enough that it wrecks a family when something like that happens,” White commented. 

Whether millennials on a college campus, or a university professor with time spent researching violent deaths and suicide, a show focusing on such a prominent societal issue is sure to create discussion.

Here's a portion of the interview with UK Epidemiology Professor Sabrina Brown.