Mother-of-three Rachael Warburton had never heard of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why until the police knocked on her door early one morning.
As a part-time student studying long hours for a degree, Rachael didn’t know anything about the glossy U.S. High School drama, which centres around the decision by a teenage pupil to kill herself after sending out taped messages to everyone she blames.
But two months after all 13 episodes were uploaded to the channel, two officers turned up at 8am to tell her something terrible had happened to her 12-year-old daughter Jessica the night before, while she was at her father’s home in Warrington, Cheshire.
As a part-time student studying long hours for a degree, Rachael didn’t know anything about the glossy U.S. High School drama 13 Reasons Why. Pictured, character Hannah Baker in the show’s suicide scene
Rachael, who had split with Jessica’s dad five years earlier, said: ‘They asked me to sit down. They told me Jessica had passed away in the middle of the night.
‘My first reaction was that she must have died in a car accident because it was so sudden. I never expected to hear the words that Jessica had hanged herself. After that, all I remember is screaming.’
In the terrible aftermath that followed her child’s suicide two years ago, the teen series started to come into sharper focus for Rachael, 33, from Leigh, Greater Manchester.
Conversations on Jessica’s social media, given to her by police, showed Jessica was fascinated by the story of Hannah Baker —the 17-year-old schoolgirl who decides to kill herself by slitting her wrists in the bath — and discussed the character’s self-harming with her friends.
Two months after all 13 episodes were uploaded to the channel, two officers turned up at 8am to tell Rachael Warburton something terrible had happened to her 12-year-old daughter Jessica (pictured) the night before, while she was at her father’s home in Warrington, Cheshire
Then there was Jessica’s suicide note posted on her social media in the hours leading up to her death.
She’d listed her own ‘Six Reasons’ why she was killing herself, including the name of someone she claimed was bullying her. In the TV series, Hannah accuses her schoolmates of bullying her in tapes that come to light after her death.
Somehow Rachael, now in the third year of a degree in criminal forensic psychology, forced herself to watch the series from start to end to try to understand her child’s state of mind.
‘I watched it over a couple of days. The suicide scene was just awful to watch. It upsets me that Jessica was watching this alone,’ she says.
Of course, the reasons behind suicide are complex and there’s never one single factor that causes it. Jessica was caught in the middle of a custody dispute and her inquest heard she had told teachers she had a difficult home life.
Yet Rachael is not the only mother who believes presenting teenage suicide as a subject for entertainment, portraying it as an understandable option and the ultimate last word, contributed to her daughter’s decision to take her own life.
A month after Jessica died, in another part of Cheshire, 13-year-old Lily Mae Sharp also hanged herself in her bedroom after playing ‘suicide’ games and pretending to hang herself with a noose made of toilet paper in the school loos.
Her mother Victoria told her inquest: ‘She was watching a Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, (which) I think does bear some similarities. She had mentioned it a couple of times. She asked had I seen it and I said, “No”. Yet the tragic deaths of two young girls doesn’t even start to reflect the impact 13 Reasons Why may be having on its teenage audience.
The climax of the first series is a harrowing straight-to-camera scene showing ‘Hannah’ cutting her wrists in the bath. Classified 18, but readily available on Netflix, family viewing, it is not.
Although there is an age limit for signing up for a Netflix account, younger viewers easily navigate their way onto adult viewing material.
In America, where the first series was broadcast in 2017, worrying links between the show and the suicide rate among young people have been identified.
A month after Jessica died, in another part of Cheshire, 13-year-old Lily Mae Sharp (pictured) also hanged herself in her bedroom after playing ‘suicide’ games and pretending to hang herself with a noose made of toilet paper in the school loos
Another series was released the following year, in 2018, but only now is the full impact being felt.
Earlier this year, U.S. researchers, measuring suicide rates among ten to 17-year-olds, saw a spike of an extra 195 deaths in the nine months after the show’s first release. These findings come on top of another study which found a 26 per cent increase in internet searches for the phrase ‘how to commit suicide’ after the show was first aired as well as dozens of warnings from mental health and suicide prevention charities all over the world about its contents.
You might therefore assume 13 Reasons Why has been consigned to history as an irresponsible and regrettable chapter in television history. You’d be wrong. Netflix have announced they have filmed a THIRD series of this troubling drama — and have released a brief trailer. It’s clear it will continue to dramatise the shattering effects of Hannah’s death on her school mates. Meanwhile the full suicide sequence, which was the finale to the first series, is still available to view for anyone who wants to catch up.
All this is despite the fact that the scene brazenly flouts all guidance on how suicide is shown in the UK media and goes against multiple recommendations from suicide-prevention charities The Samaritans and Papyrus and the World Health Organisation. It says there are more than 50 studies which show that graphic media portrayals of suicide leads more people to try it.
Nevertheless it appears that Netflix, which maintains the series enables discussion of ‘taboo’ subjects, can broadcast what it likes, whatever the human cost.
As the company launched its European streaming service from Holland, and is a ‘pull’ service, which means viewers select what to watch from hundreds of titles, the UK’s media watchdog Ofcom says it has no power to make the channel behave more responsibly.
It’s a situation Ofcom admits is ‘uneven’ but says can only be changed with Government legislation.
Rachael, who had split with Jessica’s dad five years earlier, said: ‘They asked me to sit down. They told me Jessica had passed away in the middle of the night’
So where does this leave British parents at a time when teen suicide levels are soaring? According to recent government figures, the number of teenage suicides in England and Wales increased by 67 per cent between 2010 and 2017.
Young girls and women are becoming increasingly vulnerable. More than one in seven deaths of females between five and 19 are now due to suicide.
Furthermore, making teenage suicide a subject of entertainment taps into one of the most vulnerable stage of growing up, according to clinical child psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin.
During adolescence, Dr Rudkin says teens are already more prone to entertain ideas of ‘suicide ideation’ when they start to think about death deeply for the first time and may entertain fantasies about ending their lives. The rewiring of this brain also means they are more prone to risk-taking.
Dr Rudkin says: ‘They are also at a stage where they don’t yet have the perspective to know that when they feel bad, things will usually get better. So if it’s normalised as an option, suicide may start to feel like the only answer.
‘It’s naïve to think that making suicide into a drama turns it into a helpful conversation. It promotes suicide as an option to manage normal teenage feelings, and sensationalises the impact.’ For bereaved parents, like Rachael Warburton, the thought that the program could lead another young person to consider suicide makes her despair.
For the sake of her daughter, and those who might still be influenced by it, she believes the third series should not be shown.
Rachael says: ‘I hear what the producers say about what they are trying to do, but I don’t think they have achieved this. I think it has had the reverse effect and glamorises suicide.’
Indeed, you only have to look at Instagram to see the messages vulnerable teens take from 13 Reasons Why. Within seconds, it’s easy to find dozens of images showing Hannah sitting in an artfully lit bath as she gathers the resolve to kill herself.
Many others immortalise one of Hannah’s last lines before she takes her own life: ‘I need everything to stop.’ In one clip, a sobbing teen boy is seen mouthing the same words into the camera to her voice.
Another video of Hannah crying as she cuts her wrists with a razor, and set to pop music, has been viewed more than 6,000 times.
Dr Louise Theodosiou, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told the Mail: ‘We have to acknowledge that, no matter how carefully this series is being made, it may still introduce concepts to children and young people who previously hadn’t thought about suicide as a serious possibility.
‘The way children watch television has changed, with fewer and fewer watching it live.
‘Maybe if you had watched just one episode of 13 Reasons Why and you were watching it with your family, and it was interrupted by advertising breaks, the effect might be different.
Jessica was caught in the middle of a custody dispute and her inquest heard she had told teachers she had a difficult home life
‘But if you’re a young person binge-watching, episode after episode, at 1am on your own and you become upset, it makes it harder to seek support and context for what you are seeing.’
Nevertheless, Netflix continues to stand by the series, while piling on warnings before the show.
In a statement about its decision to make a third series, the company says: ‘Our hearts go out to Jessica’s family.
‘This show, along with other UK films and soaps, raises tough issues teenagers face growing up — many of which have traditionally been taboo.
‘We’ve heard directly from young people that 13 Reasons Why gave them the courage to speak up and get help. From the start of the show, we’ve worked closely with clinical psychologists to navigate the different medical views and studies in this field — and to include their feedback.’
However, their response does not acknowledge that the show’s scenes are far more graphic than anything ever screened by a British terrestrial broadcaster, which would have had to abide by Ofcom’s guidance.
In its defence, the broadcaster cites a survey by America’s Northwestern University into the impact of 13 Reasons Why. It found 58 per cent of teen viewers reported talking to their parents about the show and issues it raises, which include bullying and sexual assault.
However the survey did not ask if watching the show encouraged suicidal thoughts. The company’s statement also omits to mention that Netflix commissioned the survey in the first place.
Quite rightly however, the firm does point out that the episodes are age rated and they offer parental controls — even though many youngsters view 13 Reasons Why on their family’s general account because they have not been switched on.
But as other mothers like Tania Howard point out, this is no bar to children accessing the series — her 13-year-old daughter Chloe still managed to see it on her friends’ phone at lunch-break at her North London school. Tania, 50, an editor, says: ‘Chloe’s school sent around a warning for parents not to let kids watch the series, completely unaware they were watching it on school grounds.
Netflix continues to stand by the series, while piling on warnings before the show (file image)
‘I was really worried when I realised what Chloe had been seeing. All kids have their friendship issues at this age. But the show’s message is that suicide is a great way to get those who you think were nasty to you into a lot of trouble.’
However, other parents say watching the series with their children has led to discussions about difficult topics.
Kat Sims, 44, a book-keeper from Somerset, says she has watched both of the first two series with her 12-year-old daughter.
‘I thought it was a useful tool. My daughter and I were able to discuss topics like sexual abuse and bullying, which also happen in the series.
‘I told her we’ve all been through tough times at school and she can always come to me and be listened to without judgement.’
Other experts remain sceptical that the prime motivation for the third series is to educate children.
Rather than opening up the discussion about suicide so teens can seek help, veteran psychologist Phillip Hodson points out that, by showing it so graphically it’s more likely to be putting the idea in their heads in the first place.
Ultimately he believes the most likely reason a third series is being broadcast is that it gains attention and viewers for Netflix.
He says: ‘TV is an amoral industry. It really only has two gods —shareholder profit and getting another commission. What the writers are invested in here is making sure there’s another series.’
LSE Professor Sonia Livingstone, one of the UK’s foremost experts on children and media, also told the Mail: ‘What’s the point of the third series?
‘I see the business argument, as perpetuating a successful product is profitable and fairly low risk.
‘But we’ve had a lot of mental health awareness in the interim, and more drama which, to gain an audience, will surely be ever more sensationalist, doesn’t seem likely to benefit young people.’
While the programme rolls on, Jessica’s life is over.
Her mother Rachael says: ‘After she died, I had to go and identify Jessica’s body in the hospital. It was like another level of torture.
‘I stayed with Jessica and talked to her. I told her I loved her very much. That was the last time I got to spend with my daughter but she wasn’t there. She was just an empty shell.’
Her voice trails off. After all, she’s a mother who knows that when teen suicide is real, there’s absolutely no need for scripts or sensationalism.
- Tanith Carey is author of ‘What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents’ published by DK, with Dr Angharad Rudkin.
- If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article then you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 or Papyrus 0800 068 41 41.