Parents care about the health and well-being of their children. Across the country, parents vigilantly raise concerns over inappropriate material pushed onto their children. Whether the books are sexually explicit or promote race ideology, parents and community members are sounding the alarm on these books found in schools. However, many parents are not aware that many books in school libraries depict, and even glorify, self-harm, mental illness, and suicide. 

“13 Reasons Why” was published in 2007 and was popularized by a Netflix show in 2017 by the same name. The book follows the suicide of a young girl named Hannah Baker. Hannah recorded all the reasons she committed suicide and sent the tapes to those she blamed for her death. The reader learns that Hannah’s perception of how the adults and her peers failed her influenced her decision to commit suicide. Since the book takes place after her death, the reader can observe how people cope with the suicide; many leave pictures and notes on her locker, memorializing her life.

Both the book and show glorify depression, self-harm, and suicide because they portray suicide as an easy way to get the ultimate revenge on bullies and leave a legacy beyond death. In reality, suicide is the end of one’s story, not the beginning. Parents and school leaders from all political backgrounds agree that “‘13 Reasons Why’ glorifies suicide and could lead to an increase in copycat behavior and self-harm among vulnerable students.”

The book and show also fail to address the complexity and serious matter of underlying mental illnesses. Johns Hopkins research reveals that most people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder—most commonly a depressive disorder or a substance use disorder. The pandemic increased depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts by 22% among young adults in several countries, affecting young women in particular. 

Many defend the book, claiming that it raises awareness about suicide, and local and state affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers even promote “13 Reasons Why” lesson plans. Organizations that perpetuate the “book ban” myth criticize parents who raise concerns about other books that depict suicide and suicidal ideation, including the graphic novels “Maus” and “Flamer.”

In reality, America faces a silent epidemic: a significant rise in self-harm, suicide contemplation and attempts, and suicides. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that suicide rates increased by 36% between 2000-2021. Suicide was the second leading cause of death for kids ages 10-14 and adults ages 20-34. Suicide deaths are just the tip of the iceberg; for every suicide death, the CDC reports around three hospitalizations for self-harm and 38 self-reported suicide attempts. Unfortunately, suicide rates among young teens and adults spiked during the pandemic, resulting in higher death rates among young children ages 5-12 and young adults ages 18-24. 

Researchers know that literature historically led to an increase in death by suicide. After Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published “The Sorrows of Young Werther” in 1774, several European countries saw a dramatic increase in suicides. In 1974, sociologist David P. Phillips coined the term “The Werther effect” after the tragic protagonist of this book. Phillips found that “suicide appeared to behave as a contagion mediated idea by such publicized events. He found an increase in suicides that occurred immediately after the publication of stories concerning suicides which were publicized in British and US newspapers.”

The “13 Reasons Why” show received prolonged and widespread popularity, with millions of viewers every season. Tragically, but maybe predictably, suicide rates in the U.S. spiked 28.9% among youth ages 10-17 after “13 Reasons Why” aired.

Parents should discuss serious topics like depression, self-harm, and suicide with their children. However, exposing them to others who committed suicide, whether in real life or via media, books, or the internet, increases the risk that an individual will consider, attempt, or die by suicide. 

It is appropriate and responsible for parents to ask why their local schools, librarians, and teachers promote books featuring suicide to vulnerable students. Questioning does not equate to banning these books, but parents have a right to protect their young and vulnerable children. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988. 

Independent Women’s Forum will be exposing inappropriate and ideologically indoctrinating books found in K-12 schools through the “Book Bans” Debunked blog series. If you want to see the books in your children’s school library, search here. This is the fifth piece in the series.