’13 Reasons Why’ prompts spike in suicide-related web searches, concerns about copycats
In 1774, a 24-year-old writer in Germany published his first novel, which unfolded as a series of letters chronicling the unrequited love of a sensitive and passionate artist named Werther, who eventually took his own life.
By the following year, The Sorrows of Young Werther had catapulted author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to international celebrity. The book was translated into multiple languages; young men began dressing in the style of Werther—blue jackets and yellow trousers; and an industry of fan merchandising had sprung up, with a line of fine china dedicated to the book, and even a cologne named after the doomed character.
There was also a spate of copycat suicides.
In fact, so many deaths were linked to Young Werther that the city of Leipzig outlawed the Werther style of dress and banned the book itself until 1825.
This chain of events—dubbed the Werther effect—remains among the most publicized historical examples of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call suicide contagion: the phenomenon by which exposure to reports of suicides or suicidal behaviors influences others to commit or attempt suicide.
Now, the popularity of a new show, 13 Reasons Why, released by Netflix on March 31, has some mental health professionals worried about a modern-day Werther effect. The 13-episode series, released all at once, follows a teenager named Clay as he untangles the complex and intertwined relationships and events that led to the suicide of his friend and crush, Hannah.
To determine whether there was in fact a Werther effect in the U.S. following the release of the show—and if so, to then quantify that effect—Johns Hopkins computer scientist Mark Dredze and his team analyzed Internet search activity relating to suicide after the show debuted.
“We have decades of research that tells us that if you show someone’s suicide, it leads to increased suicide,” says Dredze, an associate professor in the JHU’s Department of Computer Science. “Still, there was a debate back and forth about whether the show was having a positive influence or negative influence—that’s where our research steps in.”
For the study, which was led by public health researcher John Ayers of San Diego State University, the team analyzed data supplied by Google Trends to examine how often search terms relating to suicide were entered into Google in the 19 days following the release of 13 Reasons Why. The team members limited their data to a 19-day period because a high-profile suicide took place on April 19 and could have influenced search behavior. They compared the actual search volume to expected volume, which they estimated using data collected before the series was released.
Their findings fell in line with their predictions.
Following the release of 13 Reasons Why, searches for the term “teen suicide” soared 34 percent compared to expected search volume. Searches for “how to commit suicide” rose 26 percent, “commit suicide” rose 18 percent, and “how to kill yourself” rose 9 percent. Queries relating to suicide prevention also increased. The search term “suicide hotline number” rose 21 percent, “suicide hotline” rose 12 percent, and “suicide prevention” rose 23 percent.
Overall, the team found between 900,000 and 1.5 million more searches relating to suicide than would have been expected if the show hadn’t been released.
The findings, the researchers say, indicate not only an increase in curiosity about suicide, but also an increased awareness of suicide prevention resources. What’s more, adds Dredze, is that studies have found that increased online searching for suicide-related terms is correlated with increased suicide rates. According to the CDC, suicide is the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. among people ages 10 to 34.