Preventing teen suicides: ‘13 Reasons Why’ versus ‘The Hunger Games’

Hannah Baker character in “13 Reasons Why”
Hannah Baker character in “13 Reasons Why” Netflix

In 2012 we were introduced to the fictional character Katniss Everdeen. The 16-year-old heroine selflessly and bravely takes her sister’s place in a game where leaders of the civilization abuse their own youth, instill fear and wipe out all hope.

The “Hunger Games” books turned box-office hits depict Katniss, raised in the poorest district by only her mother, but her acting more as the responsible adult in the family, doing the next right thing after another no matter what odds are stacked against her. She fights for her life using only her minimalist hunting skills and by the end takes arrow to bow to impossibly bring down the evil leadership and save her people.

In March of last year, another 16-year-old fictional female character was catapulted into viral-sphere: Hannah Baker. This young lady was also met with abuse and injustice, though the “13 Reasons Why” series did not portray her as having any adverse experiences; she’s from a family with both parents rearing her and her basic needs met.

Hannah seemed to have quite a lot of stability outside of her school experience. In the end Hannah clutches the porcelain sides of the bathtub in her home with her, now famous, painted blue fingernails and slices up her left arm with such deepness and length it is rarely seen on small or big screen — no hesitation, no prior attempts — no complete panic at seeing that amount of blood.

No, Hannah then calmly turns and completes the same slice to her other arm — using her non-dominate hand as arterial blood from the first arm’s injury pulsates into the tub of water — and with less pain and emotion than if one stubs their toe in the middle of the night.

Not only is this unrealistic physically, but this type of suicide death is a rare event — for now.

There were 19 deaths between 1999-2016 in females aged 13-18 who died by cutting or piercing, in a population of over 220 million. Additionally, with Hannah acting so vindictively she presents as more homicidal than the generally self-loathing, self-blaming suicidal teens.

In 1974 a seminal paper was published about something called “The Werther Effect.” The paper showed that suicides in the United States increase immediately after a suicide story has been published in the news and the more publicized the story, the larger the rise in suicides. This study provides scientific evidence that suicide can be suggested with the help of the media. And there are more scientific studies, recommendations to the media about reporting on suicide from major government and suicide prevention organizations.

Further, the U.S. Surgeon General, in a report in Mental Health, concluded that “evidence has accumulated that supports the observation that suicide can be facilitated in vulnerable teens by exposure to real or fictional accounts of suicide (Surgeon General of the United States, 1999).” Another pivotal study talks about concerns depicting graphic suicide saying, “dramatizing the impact of suicide through descriptions and pictures of grieving relatives, teacher or classmates or community expressions of grief may encourage potential victims to see suicide as a way of getting attention or as a form of retaliation against others.”

Despite the large girth of knowledge, the producers, actors and director of “13 Reasons” defend the gruesome suicide scene by explaining that it starts a conversation about suicide, that it educates young men and women.

There’s also an overall theme that parents, teachers and counselors don’t understand teenagers’ unique troubles of today. However, current-day teen issues are not new, but the response is exceptional. Hannah’s expectations are that those around her read her mind after making only superficial attempts at disclosing her struggles.

The feature-length documentary, “Suicide: The Ripple Effect,” is an example of “starting the conversation” with hope and not example. This film more accurately details the aftermath for those — in this case potentially — left behind, not unlike “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As a professional in the field of suicide prevention, I am thankful to have something that just might overshadow “13 Reasons.”

Both Katniss and Hannah are extremely influential characters, act on their tragedies in powerful ways and inspire audiences in their own way. Shortly after the first “Hunger Games” release, there seemed to be bow and arrow sets everywhere and archery became popular.

As Hannah takes her plotting to fruition and lays back in a tub to die you can almost hear her whisper, “Look how easy it is.”

Sabrina Brown is an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Kentucky and director of the Kentucky Violent Death Reporting System. She is also author of “I Married a Sociopath.” Reach her at sabrina.brown@uky.edu