Don't opt out: click here to learn more about our work.

Release of 13 Reasons Why linked to increased youth suicides in the United States

Youth suicides rose by 13 per cent in three months after release, finds U of T-affiliated study

Release of <i>13 Reasons Why</i> linked to increased youth suicides in the United States

Content warning: discussions of depression and suicide.

The release of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why has been severely criticized by mental health advocates for potentially harmful depictions of mental illness and suicide, which they say could lead to higher suicide risk among viewers.

These warnings were substantiated by a recent U of T-affiliated study published in JAMA Psychiatry that correlated the release of the series to an uptick in youth suicides in the United States over the three-month period following its release on March 31, 2017.

Results of the study

The study found that the number of reported deaths by suicide among 10 to 19-year-olds in the United States was 13 per cent higher than projected based on a “time series analysis” which took into account pre-existing trends. This is the equivalent of 94 more deaths than expected.

This sudden and significant increase in suicides was observed only in youth, and most prominently in young women, wrote co-author Dr. Mark Sinyor, Assistant Professor at U of T’s Department of Psychiatry, to The Varsity.

“The first season of 13 Reasons Why failed to show that suicide most commonly arises from a treatable mental illness,” wrote Sinyor.

“[Our research team] can’t definitively prove that the show caused the rise, but this is precisely what we anticipated we would see if the show was causing harm,” he wrote.

To Sinyor, the results of the study are not surprising.

This was an unfortunate yet predictable outcome,” he wrote, “because past scientific research has repeatedly established that media dissemination of the kind of content depicted in the show can lead to increased suicide rates.”

Sinyor noted that the series has violated guidelines recommended by mental health experts to media producers intended to avoid irresponsible suicide portrayal.

“The first season of 13 Reasons Why failed to show that suicide most commonly arises from a treatable mental illness,” wrote Sinyor.

“It romanticized the suicide, depicted suicide methods, presented the suicide as inevitable, and even [achieved] positive results in that it appeared to punish those who had hurt the show’s protagonist. It also presented the school’s mental health expert as incompetent.”

“There’s no single reason people take their own lives,” says Netflix

Netflix responded to The Varsity’s inquiry concerning the study.

“Experts agree that there’s no single reason people take their own lives — and that rates for teenagers [dying by suicide] have tragically been increasing for years,” Netflix wrote. “These two studies raise important issues but directly conflict with each other, even though they’re based on the same US government data.”

After inquiring about the second study referenced in Netflix’s reply, which supposedly conflicts with Sinyor’s findings, The Varsity did not receive a response.  

“And they don’t explain the increases [in suicides] for girls in November 2016 and boys in March 2017 — before the show had launched,” continued Netflix.

13 Reasons Why tackles the uncomfortable reality of life for many young people today and we’ve heard from them, as well as medical experts, that it gave many viewers the courage to speak up and get help.”

To follow up, The Varsity also requested the names of medical experts who have said this to be the case. Netflix did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.

Remedies to the potential impact of media involving suicide

To ensure that the entertainment industry observes best practices with the influence it can have on the public, Sinyor urged for greater collaboration between the industry and suicide prevention experts.

He further underscored the importance of sharing messages of hope and distributing information on ways in which to seek help in order to decrease the number of deaths by suicide.

“The overwhelming majority of young people who think about suicide do not die by suicide and even those youth suicides that do occur should always be viewed as preventable tragedies,” he wrote. “That is the message that we need to disseminate.”

“The key is to find and present identifiable stories of resilience rather than stories of deaths. As only one example, J.K. Rowling has said in the popular press that she was depressed and suicidal and sought therapy which she credits with helping her overcome those feelings.”

“There are many other such stories in both celebrities and non-celebrities and we need to encourage the media to help us spread them in addition to crisis resources such as the new national crisis line in Canada.”


If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Overlooked: The Sopranos

Millennials and Gen Z have failed good TV

Overlooked: <i>The Sopranos</i>

The Sopranos may seem like an odd choice for The Varsity’s “Overlooked” column, boasting over 20 Emmy awards. However, it is ripe and waiting for a generational rediscovery. Despite being instantly absorbed into the zeitgeist of the early 2000s, the television masterpiece has been criminally ignored by those who exist on the millennial and Gen Z border. Part of the reason for this is likely its lack of presence on streaming services like Netflix.

The Sopranos follows the chronicles of New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano, masterfully portrayed by the late James Gandolfini. Tony is brash and unapologetic, but as he juggles his daily life of crime with his familial duties, he begins experiencing severe panic attacks. With Edie Falco as Tony’s wife, Carmela, who shows a fascinating contradiction of subservient mob wife and strong-willed personality, these characters serve as an example of the show’s impeccable and unique characterization.

The effect of this character-based plot is that each episode contains a complete story arc, allowing for painfully grounded human characters to weave between bits of mafia spectacle. In the current TV landscape, where characterization and story have largely been thrust to the wayside to make way for splashy plot devices, The Sopranos seems transcendent.

Nuanced characters, however, should not be mistaken for morally upright ones. The inherently crude world in which the Soprano family and its associates exist creates violent plotlines and dredges up disgusting and deplorable supporting characters. Characters’ biases and reprehensible actions are shown yet condemned, and this tension manages to get at themes of loyalty, trust, love, and justice, much deeper than television does today. This cathartic ride, combined with the detailed depiction of the scandalous world of organized crime, creates a quality of television that has remained unmatched to this day.

The Sopranos, at its core, is a show about a family like any other, who just happen to live in a horrific and fascinating world. Though the lack of bingeable-ness may turn some off, experiencing the show in all of its glory for the first time is a revelation. As you learn each character’s neurosis and desires, it starts feeling like you’re visiting old friends — scotch-swirling, rat-whacking, criminal friends, but friends nonetheless.

What to watch this winter: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Two writers offer opposing opinions on Black Mirror’s interactive episode

What to watch this winter:  Black Mirror: <I>Bandersnatch</I>

I have a love-hate relationship with Black Mirror. When it’s good, it uses technology as an accessory to tell stories about every aspect of humanity, positive and negative. Episodes like “Be Right Back,” “Crocodile,” and “San Junipero” seamlessly integrate the technology they explore into the story, so the viewer can focus on the actual ideas presented. When it’s bad, it’s a Luddite-esque fable about the dangers of scary, spooky technology. Episodes like “Men Against Fire” and “Arkangel” are less about humanity and more about how it would be really bad if we had certain kinds of technology. Or, as it has been put online, “what if phones, but too much.” 

I wanted to like Netflix’s newest addition to Black Mirror, the film-length choose-your-own-adventure Bandersnatch. It was advertised as a brand-new experience of watching television,  allowing the viewer to make the decisions for the characters and push the story toward their own desires. Of course, as someone who has played video games before, this is not 100 per cent novel, but nonetheless I decided to watch. Spoilers ahead. 

What I wanted, and expected, was a story about choices, about creation, and about ’80s video games. What I got instead was a regurgitation of one of the most damaging tropes about mental illness in pop culture: that mental illness causes creativity, and that treating mental illness causes one to lose creativity. When Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) chooses to take his medication, his video game is rated poorly, with the suggestion that he was on “autopilot.”

Medication doesn’t stunt your creativity. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. For most people with a mental illness, creativity is stunted when they experience symptoms without access to treatment. You can’t work on a piece of art or a game if you are consumed by anxiety, paranoia, or depression. In fact, sometimes you can barely function enough to eat and sleep. 

This idea also goes hand in hand with the belief that sacrificing health, especially mental health, is not only necessary for artistic creation, but also that it is a reasonable sacrifice. Nobody with a mental illness should have to sacrifice their own health for the sake of a project, but that isn’t the case in Bandersnatch. Colin (Will Poulter), Stefan’s mentor and idol, even says that he needs “a bit of madness” to create his project. And the only way that Stefan’s video game can be given five stars is if Stefan — by the hand of the viewer — plunges deeper into his own psychosis and paranoia. 

Another damaging trope Bandersnatch uses is the tired idea that people with mental illnesses are inherently violent. In the path that leads Stefan to getting five stars, he ends up brutally murdering his father. The vast majority of individuals with mental illnesses are no more violent than anyone else. In fact, sadly, they are far more likely to be the victims of violence. 

There were things I genuinely enjoyed about Bandersnatch, from the phenomenal acting to the tongue-in-cheek fourth wall breaks. But if the lesson Black Mirror wants to give me is the same tired, damaging portrayal of mental illness, I’d rather settle for the Luddite stories.

— Adina Heisler

My scriptwriting professor used to say that characters are the soul of every play. A successful character — who could be as distant a serial killer, or as close as the neighbour’s daughter — needs to be authentic, keeping a safe distance from a humdrum life, but still sharing traits of humanity that resonate and tug at our heartstrings. 

It is the characters we root for or resent who decide their own fate, which is also the direction of the plot, and only when we are drawn to the characters do we keep watching. But such an existentialist view on the role of the character is about to change as Netflix released its first interactive movie, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. 

Unlike previous Black Mirror episodes, Bandersnatch is a standalone, non-linear film that involves viewers in characters’ decision-making. With each choice made by a simple click on A or B, the film resembles an ideal game for uncoordinated players. 

The idea that we are watching ourselves, rather than the character, might sound new under the guise of interaction, but it really isn’t. We empathize with fictional characters in order to understand them, and we seek our reflection in fictions all the time. We project our memories on fictional characters and take it as their truth, and our acceptance of their truth hinges on how well it agrees with our experiences. 

Meanwhile, Stefan is losing his mind knowing that he is not in control of his actions. He is convinced that the invisible hand pulling him like a puppet is also watching him. But why is the thought that he has no autonomy so unbearable? According to Lauren Bialystok, a professor in U of T’s Department of Social Justice Education, Western tradition does not define the purpose of life by a shared “human-ness” as a species. “Rather, to lead a human life—at least a fulfilling one—is usually thought to require honoring what it means to be human for me, as a once-occurring person,” Bialystok wrote in a 2014 paper. 

This explains our need for characters to be different, to lead a hell of a life, or hold a secret that demarcates them from the pedestrian life they keep. Being different verifies their authenticity as a character. 

Personal authenticity hinges on the truthfulness of the relationship to self. Autonomy, in other words, conditions authenticity. Yet with or without surveillance, do we have as much autonomy as we’d like to hope? Stefan believes that he is controlled by those who are watching him, but aren’t we always aware of our audience and controlled by their perception of us? How many of our so-called authentic acts are conducted by being true to ourselves, rather than to be perceived as such? 

Bandersnatch is revolutionary for having engaged viewers in the development of the plot from the perspective of scriptwriting. But from the perspective of the movie industry, there hasn’t been a single film that succeeds by disregarding viewers’ experiences. While interactive films engage viewers in a creative process, they also deprive them of the chance to apply their empathy. It is worth considering whether Bandersnatch suggests a more narcissistic or creative society.

— April Yan Jin 

America’s Next Top Model’s problematic past

Tyra Banks and company have come a long way in 14 years

<i>America’s Next Top Model</i>’s problematic past

After 14 years and 24 cycles, America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) is proving that age doesn’t necessarily mean retirement in the fashion world. While viewership has plummeted in the later seasons — the show was briefly cancelled after cycle 22 — its core fanbase still tunes in every Tuesday night at 8:00 pm to see which contestant’s photograph is not in presenter Tyra Banks’ hand.

Longtime viewers have been lamenting what they deem a loss of the show’s original spirit, decrying the commercial branding and social media challenges that have come to dominate the competition. We can all undoubtedly agree that part of the show’s soul has been lost along this long journey, along with Janice Dickinson’s hilariously cruel photo critiques, sweet-heart photographer Nigel Barker, and Mr. and Miss J: Jay Manuel and J. Alexander.

But as much as we miss old-school ANTM, there are many insidious aspects of the show’s earlier days that viewers should be glad are missing from cycle 24.

Of all the problematic moments on ANTM, the most iconic is from cycle four, when Banks broke character and lost her cool at Tiffany, one of the competing models. Banks was outraged at Tiffany’s nonchalance to her elimination, screaming, “I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you! How dare you?”

“I can’t change it, Tyra… I’m sick of crying about stuff that I cannot change… I’m sick of being disappointed,” responded Tiffany tearfully. But Banks refused to accept her excuse.

By cycle 24, Banks has become much more accepting of the models’ personal choices, and more understanding that the modelling competition does not trump a contestant’s mental health and wellbeing. When Brendi K. chose to leave in the current cycle, saying, “I’m taking care of me because as much as I love this competition… I need to be happy because it’s something I’ve had so little of in my life,” Banks’ reaction was one of support, giving her a hug and agreeing that the contestant’s mental health is more important than being on the show.

ANTM’s history is replete with other examples of problematic events. It’s difficult not to rewatch the cycle 4 ‘racial switching’ photoshoot in horror, as some models don actual blackface. “The challenge here really is taking on the persona of that other ethnicity while in the photograph and owning it” said Jay Manuel during that episode.

Shoots like this continued all the way through until cycle 13, which featured a photoshoot of models portraying biracial versions of themselves. Banks eventually apologized for this, albeit far too late.

Though ANTM presents itself as inclusive of all body types, it is also still a major culprit of body-shaming. “America’s Next Top Model is not a plus-sized model,” scoffed Dickinson, dismissing the show’s first plus-sized model, Toccara, purely on her size. In cycle four, judges continually shamed Keenyah for gaining weight during the competition, tailoring her photoshoots to her new ‘fat girl’ persona by casting her as Gluttony in a Seven Deadly Sins challenge and as an elephant in a safari-themed photoshoot.

Lack of body-inclusivity was far from ANTM’s only issue. Contestants uncomfortable with nudity for religious reasons were not accommodated; a contestant in cycle two was eliminated because she refused to pose nude. In a cycle four shoot with male models, Keenyah stopped the shoot because she was uncomfortable with the unsolicited touching and “moaning” of one of the male models. Her complaints were unaddressed and belittled.

ANTM has made progressive steps over the last few years though, allowing for models with a variety of traits and of different backgrounds to take centre stage. Hopefully, ANTM will ensure that new, diverse casts constitute the norm, rather than lucky anomalies. With only four girls left this cycle — Khrystyana, Shanice, Rio, and Kyla — the competition is fierce. ‘Next level fierce,’ as Banks might say.

Overlooked: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin

Alongside its staple of superhero shows, The CW network’s stronger series have gone under the radar

Overlooked: <i>Crazy Ex-Girlfriend</i>, <i>Jane the Virgin</i>

The merged successor to The WB and UPN, The CW is a joint venture between CBS and Warner Bros. Since its debut in 2006, the network has had its growing pains, but it was still at the forefront of the teen melodrama with shows such as Gossip Girl90210, and The Vampire Diaries.

In recent years, though, the network might as well have been known as the superhero show channel, home to DC comic adaptations including ArrowSupergirl, and The Flash. Yet aside from these anchors, in addition to the blockbuster Supernatural, the network’s lineup also currently includes a number of compelling series that are not getting the attention they deserve.

Every so often, there is a piece of pop culture that makes you feel truly seen. For me, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one such show. Its depiction of Jewish female anxiety is part of my favourite growing niche in media, alongside the hysterical Broad City, Amazon’s recent The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as well as elements of other shows like Transparent and unREAL.

Co-creator Rachel Bloom, previously best-known for the viral YouTube parody song “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury,” is wonderful as Rebecca Bunch, a New York corporate lawyer who moves to West Covina, California in pursuit of a former summer camp fling. Rebecca’s delusional pursuit of happiness, in the form of Josh Chan, is initially both cringe-worthy and riveting, but the viewer soon begins to feel real empathy for the show’s clearly damaged protagonist.

Despite being a critical darling, CXG is one of the lowest-rated shows on television, having taken the bottom spot in fall rankings for each of the three years it’s been on the air. The show is simply not reaching enough people — a true shame, since it includes a brilliant ensemble cast, clever musical numbers, and one of the best portrayals of mental illness on television.

CXG effortlessly moves between genres to pursue its ultimate goal: a deconstruction of the societal norms of romance. I could write essays on its use of musical parodies, but instead I will direct you to a couple of my recent favorites: “Let’s Have Intercourse,” a pitch-perfect Ed Sheeran mockery, and “The End of the Movie,” which warns against treating your life as a straightforward narrative — with the use of a killer cameo. To say nothing of classics like “Friendtopia,” “Fit Hot Guys Have Problems Too,” and “Let’s Generalize About Men.”

Not far ahead of CXG in the ratings is Jane the Virgin, my go-to recommendation anytime someone asks me what they should watch next.

Jane the Virgin begins with a ridiculous premise — literally ‘straight out of a telenovela’ — as Jane, who planned on waiting until marriage to have sex, is accidentally artificially inseminated.

Despite this absurd starting point, I haven’t seen anything else on TV that can compare in terms of heart. The show’s quirks, such as its omniscient narrator known as the Latin Lover and its tendency to indulge in plot twists like evil twins and child kidnappings, belie its core: a smart and often touching portrayal of love, life, and family.

I haven’t even mentioned the post-apocalyptic drama The 100, or Riverdale, the show we are all growing to love to hate. Suffice it to say that treating The CW as solely the domain of Greg Berlanti is both an incorrect assumption and one that’s a shame. Behind the archery, capes, and lightning bolts are a handful of series that are well worth the watch.

Overlooked is a recurring feature in the Arts & Culture section where writers make the case for pieces of culture that don’t get the attention they deserve. To contribute, email arts@thevarsity.ca.

Shows we always come back to

Our contributors share their favourite TV series

Shows we always come back to

You’re probably familiar with the ritual of contemplating how much work you have to do and briefly engaging in an anxiety spiral before turning to your laptop and opening Netflix. Here are some of the shows that our contributors return to time and time again for a bit of nostalgia, or just to shut off for a little while.

I’ve watched the American version of The Office at least four times. Michael’s awkward and inappropriate behaviour combined with Pam and Jim’s continuing love story made the show irresistible to me. There was always something charming about the modest Dunder Mifflin office and the people working within it that reminded me to laugh at the smallest of situations. It’s a show I’ll keep returning to — there’s nothing like laying on your bed, eating soggy Hawaiian pizza and salt and vinegar chips while watching Dwight throw the perfect Garden Party.

— Kaitlyn Simpson

The show I always go back to is Friends. It’s feel-good, funny, and the characters and storylines are still relatable today. It’s a great show to watch after a stressful day of classes.

— Khyrsten Mieras

I always like to go back to Avatar: The Last Airbender because I like to reconnect with fantasy and magic, and keep myself curious about the world.

— Vivian Li

How I Met Your Mother is just a great feel-good, romance-comedy show for when you don’t want to think too hard. Plus, I binged the whole thing when I was 10, so I feel a bit of nostalgia too.

— Kevin Yin

My show of choice is Lizzie McGuire, my go-to for whenever I’m feeling lost or contemplating my life. Definitely a must for those Fridays when I’m missing more stress-free days.

— Carol Eugene Park

My personal mission in life is to get as many people as I can to watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine. All it takes is one hilarious cold open followed by its intro music, and I am home, if home were a NYPD precinct in Brooklyn, New York. As a woman of colour, I am tired of seeing shows about five or six white people taking on New York — I’ve watched Friends and How I Met Your Mother, been there done that — where people of colour and queer people make up sidelined, undeveloped characters. Brooklyn Nine-Nine features both without reducing their characters to their sexuality or ethnicity. If you want a show that is both funny and self-aware, I recommend Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It is, in one word, noice.

— Zeahaa Rehman

Hollywood must make room for more women of colour on screen

Despite efforts to improve gender representation in sci-fi and fantasy, mainstream media remains overwhelmingly white

Hollywood must make room for more women of colour on screen

From superheroes to elves to dragons, there is ample imagination that goes into the creation of science fiction and fantasy stories. Yet when it comes to envisioning people of colour at the forefront of these stories, it seems that sense of imagination is lacking.

For the first time in its over-50-year history, the upcoming season of popular sci-fi series Doctor Who will feature a female Doctor, the lead character in the show. Nerd women everywhere celebrated the news as an important leap in representation within the sci-fi and fantasy genre — a genre that often excludes women from leading roles. In 2016, for instance, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that only 29 per cent of the top 100 grossing science fiction films in Hollywood featured female protagonists.

It is therefore encouraging that franchises like Doctor Who — as well as films like Atomic Blonde, Mad Max: Fury Road, Wonder Woman, and Ghostbusters — have carved out more space for women to take on starring roles. What’s not so encouraging is the overwhelming proportion of white women featured in the mainstream film and television industry.

Representation of people of colour remains a significant issue for mainstream cinema. As of 2016, 76 per cent of female characters in the top 100 films were white, compared to 14 per cent Black, six per cent Asian, and three per cent Latina.

Representation of marginalized people in the media is important: it can reduce racial bias, and it increases confidence and self-esteem among racial minority audiences. Portraying women of colour in film and television helps to normalize their experiences — and when women and people of colour don’t see themselves on screen, it sends the unfortunate message that their experiences are invalid or not as important as those of white actors, both male and female.

The sidelining of women of colour in favour of white women is nothing new. Historically, feminism has excluded women of colour and prioritized the needs of cisgender, heterosexual white women above everyone else. White feminism — the insidious brand of feminism that favours the needs of white women over those of women of colour and thereby upholds white supremacy — contributes to the push for more inclusion in mainstream media.

To the extent that celebrations of gender diversity in Hollywood predominantly focus on white women, gains made in this area remain mostly superficial. Though Wonder Woman is widely publicized as a groundbreaking feminist movie, it still lacks substantial casting of women of colour. Conceptualizing feminism in such a unidimensional way is reminiscent of Lena Dunham’s Girls, which has received similar praise despite not including women of colour in lead roles.

The infamous controversy about the movie Ghost in the Shell also exemplifies how white feminism can be weaponized against women of colour. Given that the film is based on an original Japanese franchise, it would have made sense to cast a Japanese actress in the starring role. Instead, white actress Scarlett Johansson was hired to play the protagonist, which offended many in light of the general scarcity of Asian actors featured in Hollywood movies.

Fortunately, a number of upcoming sci-fi and fantasy releases seem to be more sensitive to the scarcity of roles for women of colour in Hollywood. In the upcoming Marvel film Black Panther, 90 per cent of the cast is Black, and Black women have been cast in leading roles, making it one of the most diverse movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Women of colour have also been cast in other upcoming movies: Zazie Beetz will play Domino in the Deadpool sequel, and the upcoming movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time will feature Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey.

Although increased diversity appears to be on its way to the big screen, more work still needs to be done to ensure women of colour are granted the visibility they deserve. As strides are being made to include women in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, additional attention should be paid to inclusivity for racialized women; having truly diverse casts means being sensitive to racism as well as sexism.

 

Oreoluwa Adara is an incoming second-year student at Innis College studying Political Science and Equity Studies.