Netflix removed a graphic suicide scene from its popular teen series 13 Reasons Why on Tuesday after two years of warding off denunciations from parents, mental health advocates, and researchers who found the portrayal led to a spike in teens taking their lives.
The show, which debuted in 2017, focused on protagonist Hannah Baker, a depressed teenage girl who left behind an audio diary with a complex explanation of why she took her life and whom she blamed. The now-omitted suicide scene in the final episode of the first season was practically a how-to guide for teens, researcher Lisa Horowitz told The Wall Street Journal.
Horowitz co-authored a National Institutes of Health–funded study released in May that showed a 30 percent jump in suicides among tweens and teens in April 2017, a month after the show’s debut, bringing the suicide rate to a 19-year high for U.S. children ages 10 to 17. “Netflix is so powerful that what they do matters,” she said. After the first season aired, Google searches for “how to kill myself” surged by 26 percent.
The show’s creator, Brian Yorkey, defended the scene in a statement: “Our creative intent in portraying the ugly, painful reality of suicide in such graphic detail in Season 1 was to tell the truth about the horror of such an act, and make sure no one would ever wish to emulate it.”
Netflix said it decided to cut the scene “on the advice of medical experts” as it prepares to release the third season, likely bringing increased viewership to past episodes. “We’ve heard from many 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,” the streaming giant said in a statement.
Jonathan Singer, president of the American Association of Suicidology, praised Netflix for taking greater responsibility for its content. He said that while the show has facilitated discussion, for some vulnerable children already contemplating suicide it was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Singer pointed out that streaming lets kids watch content anywhere at any time, so “it’s plausible that 13-year-olds were watching Hannah kill herself on their phones under the covers at 3 a.m.”
With teen suicide on the rise—it is now the second leading cause of death for adolescents—Parents Television Council President Tim Winter has been a leading voice from the beginning in calling on Netflix to pull “the most explicit, graphic suicide scene we’ve seen produced on any form of media.”
After the show’s first season, Netflix responded to critics by adding a content warning and including information for a suicide prevention hotline. But Netflix CEO Reed Hastings dismissed concerns at the company’s annual meeting, saying, “It’s controversial, but nobody has to watch it.” In June, Hastings simply said, “We’ve worked hard to ensure that we’ve handled this sensitive issue responsibly.”
One month later, Netflix’s decision to edit 13 Reasons Why came as a surprise to many. It followed the company’s recent decision to set limits on tobacco use in its programs and prohibit smoking on shows whose primary audience is children ages 14 and younger, except for historical or factual reasons.
“This signals the willingness on the part of Netflix to acknowledge these are living experiences, and they are willing to address them,” Singer said.
Changing or editing a show, especially two years after its release, is rare. Winter called Netflix’s actions “better late than never,” and said of 13 Reason’s Why: “We don’t know how many lives have been lost because of it.”