13 Reasons Why
Trigger warning: this piece discusses mental illness, suicide, rape, and gives some spoilers of the show
The show 13 Reasons Why recently premiered on Netflix, and has been getting a ton of attention lately. Why?
I’ll start with this - it’s emotional, incredibly graphic, and hard to watch. It is not a “feel good” type of show. There is no real resolution or happy ending. And, it has come under very heavy criticism for being emotionally triggering to viewers.
For those who don’t already know what it’s about, 13 Reasons Why tells the thirteen reasons behind a young girl’s suicide as told by herself via a series of tapes recorded in the days leading up to the act. The main character, Hannah Baker, uses 13 tapes total, each with its own episode, to explain the reasons why she decided to kill herself in a way that directly places the blame on others. She initially leaves the tapes with a trusted friend, who delivers them to the first person on Hannah’s list of reasons why. Hannah instructs listeners to pass the tapes along to the person whose story immediately follows theirs on the tapes, and the series picks up with her crush receiving the tapes.
Yeah, it’s kind of messed up.
So let’s start with the good things about this show - it has brought some attention and awareness to a very important issue, yet very touchy subject: teen suicide. The Jason Foundation reports, “Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24,” and, “more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.” Obviously, a huge number of people are affected by this, and spreading awareness of the problem might be one of the first steps to help combat it.
In addition, the show also highlights the importance of being empathetic, sympathetic, and caring towards others. Any one of the characters discussed in the tapes could have easily done something differently that could have helped save Hannah’s life, but didn’t - whether they’d realized it or not. While being empathetic is important, it can’t always be expected of others, which sends a conflicting message to viewers about exactly how responsible a given person is for the actions of others. In an interview with E! News, producer Selena Gomez explained, “I just wanted [the show] to come across in a way that kids would be frightened, but confused — in a way that they would talk about [suicide] because it’s something that’s happening all the time.”
People are definitely talking about the show, but not necessarily in the way that Gomez and other producers might have hoped.
First, many viewers think that Hannah is cruel and selfish for committing suicide and directly blaming others for it, leaving them with this horrible, guilt-ridden series of tapes putting responsibility almost directly on them. Suicide happens because of mental illness, and there is no real way to blame mental illness on others. Yet, Hannah does - or at least tries to - and because of this, many viewers aren’t fully able to sympathize with her… which sort of defeats one of the show’s main purposes.
Second, the entire plot romanticizes and almost promotes suicide by making it seem like things might finally go the way you’d wanted them to only after you’re dead, which definitely is not the typical case. It portrays suicide in a way that makes it very much seem like a reasonable, and almost desirable “way out” of everyday life problems - and offers no insight to any other solutions for coping with these types of issues.
The biggest drawback, though, is the fact that the final episode of the show displays the actual suicide quite graphically, as well as not one, but two incredibly disturbing rape scenes - one of which drawn out over the course of two episodes. Although it seems the show’s producers purposefully aimed to make these scenes uncomfortable to watch, many people believe that it was a poor decision for them to include them - even though they can be incredibly triggering to an audience. In defense of their decision to include the suicide scene, one of the show’s writers wrote in an op/ed for Vanity Fair, “It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like, to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse.”
Although this writer does have his point, psychologists urge viewers to think twice before watching this series. In an interview with VOX, Victor Schwartz, professor of psychiatry and chief medical officer of the JED Foundation, states, “Research shows us that the more obvious, florid, dramatic, and explicit the portrayal is, as disturbing as it is to most of us, there’s the potential that for some people who see it, who are really struggling with something, this winds up being in some way strangely appealing.” Schwartz continues, “It’s not that 50 percent of the people who see a depiction of suicide will be inclined to act, but when you think about media that’s being consumed by large numbers of people, it will have an effect on a few of them, and when you’re talking about a life-and-death effect. … It’s small statistically, but it’s obviously desperately significant.”
Even though the show’s main goal was to turn people away from suicide, those who suffer from mental illness may find themselves even more attracted to the idea after seeing it play out like this on screen - which is definitely not good. I would be somewhat hesitant to recommend it to others, especially those with a history of mental illness or who have experienced a suicide attempt or sexual assault. Recently, Netflix has announced that it will be increasing the amount of advisory warnings shown before episodes - but will that really be enough?
Despite all the controversy surrounding the show, Netflix has just confirmed that it will come back for a second season, this time focusing moreso on the aftermath of Hannah’s suicide and its lasting effects on the characters involved. In an interview with Los Angeles Times, creator of the show Brian Yorkey asserted, “Hannah’s story isn’t over — she has parents who still don’t have the complete story, there’s a rapist who hasn't been brought to justice, and there’s a living survivor of that rapist who is just beginning her journey of recovery.” While this statement shows that there is still potential for this season to touch on some of the serious problems that the first series failed to address, it depends entirely on how the story plays out. Rather than exploiting suicide for entertainment, I really hope that the show goes in a more positive direction that better addresses ways of dealing with and overcoming emotional trauma.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing symptoms of depression or suicidal thoughts, please reach out to one of our many campus resources, found here, or the national suicide prevention lifeline here.