TV Portrayals Of Mental Health Issues Encouraged Teens To Discuss Anxiety & Depression, ‘13 Reasons Why’-Centered UCLA Study Finds

13 Reasons Why

Since its controversial series premiere in 2017, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why has taken more care in addressing mental health issues by highlighting resources and opening up the conversation more carefully. As a result teenage viewers are holding their own discussions and learning about mental health, anxiety, depression and more, a report from UCLA’s Center of Scholars and Storytellers (CSS) shows.

CSS conducted several studies examining the Netflix teen drama’s impact on the mental health of teens and young adults. In a study of 157 teens, 68 of whom watched the third season of 13 Reasons Why, 92% of the viewers searched for information on mental health topics related to what they saw on the show. A vast majority of the teens who watched the show reported discussing issues it raised, especially suicide, mental health and bullying.

“Our research found that when teens watch TV shows that portray mental health issues, they actually talk about it with their peers, parents and partners,” said Yalda Uhls, who is also the report’s senior author and the center’s founder and executive director. “Our results demonstrate that these kinds of challenging and realistic stories inspire youth to talk about and learn more about mental health.”

Uhls added that the study’s findings come at a time when teenagers are facing higher rates of anxiety and depression. During the pandemic, 11-to-17-year-olds have been more likely than any other age group to report moderate-to-severe anxiety and depression, and 45% of college students perceive stigma for people who receive mental health treatment. Before Covid-19, teen suicide rates were rising, along with reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, she noted.

The center also commissioned a study by MarketCast, LLC that tracked more than 1.29 million mentions of 13 Reasons Why on Twitter to examine the conversation around the show on social media. The study found that social media engagement was high when actors on the show posted mental health resources. Viewers also engaged on social media discussions about the series’ emotionally charged scenes and behind-the-scenes content.

The report suggests that studios create and provide credible, engaging resources with accurate information to accompany television shows and movies designed for teens that address mental health and related issues. Recommended resources include toolkits developed by public health experts designed to support teens as they discuss these issues with parents and friends.

“Together, we can normalize talking about mental health by bringing together scholars and content creators, to unlock the power of research-informed storytelling,” Uhls said. “This study provides much-needed evidence to advance the conversation about how a popular Netflix show can impact adolescent mental health, and the lessons to be drawn from it. Accurate information combined with compelling storytelling works well.”

Co-authors of the report are Jordan Levinson, a UCLA graduate student in psychology; Laurel Felt, a senior fellow with the center; Elise Tsai, a UCLA research assistant and Ellen Wartella, a professor of communication at Northwestern University

Melinda French Gates’ Pivotal Ventures and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Technology and Adolescent Mental Wellness program funded the center’s mental health initiative.

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