It's time to get serious about why "13 Reasons Why" is doing more damage than people think. For those who haven't seen or heard of it, very briefly, it's an American mystery teen drama web television series based on the 2007 novel "Thirteen Reasons Why", written by Jay Asher and adapted by Brian Yorkey for Netflix. The series focuses on a high school student, Clay Jensen, and his friend, Hannah Baker – a girl who decides to commit suicide after suffering a string of demoralising situations brought on by classmates at her school. A box of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah before her suicide details thirteen reasons why she ended her life.
We will start by saying that it does raise a very important issue that has become an epidemic around the world and that mental health is an extremely important topic to talk about to remove the stigma behind it. The efforts of the producers and actors are admirable in their attempt to address a taboo topic and their good intentions are recognised.
However, it seems that the story suggests that Hannah's suicide was related to some sort of revenge plot. Psychologist, Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber, Ph.D., director of Columbia University’s anti-suicide initiative named The Columbia Lighthouse Project, commented on the show saying: “Revenge as a motivation for suicide is not the kind of message that is healthy or productive to send".
"That way of portraying suicide doesn’t really match what we typically see in clinical practice,” John Ackerman, Ph.D., the coordinator at Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Center for Suicide Prevention and Research says, “Hannah responding to these individuals who caused her harm, or perceived harm, in a very vindictive way plays into a teen fantasy and promotes a misconception that suicidal behaviour is selfish."
The main concern is that Hollywood is glamorising a very serious topic because a person considering suicide is generally feeling hopeless, alone and as if they have no other option. Ackerman says: “It would be hard to motivate the energy and planning necessary to craft that elaborate set of responses that she did.” It also sends the message that suicide is a good way to control peoples emotions and influence people's actions, almost as if the tapes are an "I got you" kind of message.
In a society where bullying is so prominent, this message carries terrifyingly dangerous implications. The Atlantic Magazine article What Went Wrong with 13 Reason Why reviewed the show stating “The National Association of School Psychologists has issued guidelines for educators in talking with students about the show", while the New Zealand Office of Film and Literature has created new standards to advise that under-18s don’t watch the series without adult supervision.
The concept of resilience and having a backbone in the face of adversity is not even a feature in the show. Many people battle with depression on a daily basis and, while everyone's experience is different, the key to overcoming it is looking for help and fighting against suicidal behaviour. The actions of her classmates influenced her in a way that may have been different than others and it is important that the audience does not walk away from this show believing that suicide was her only option. It is important to send the message that there are other, healthier options but the person needs to seek the help they need.
The show also missed out on an amazing opportunity to teach people about the risk factors associated with suicide and ways that friends and family could help someone who may be at risk. The show focuses more on the drama and intricate storyline rather than using the storyline as a teaching moment to educate and benefit society.
For example, the show portrays the actions of her classmates as the sole reason for her reason to commit suicide, essentially playing the blame game. There doesn't seem to be another side of the story depicted, such as how her friends may have been misunderstood by her, or that she was perceiving their actions in a possibly distorted way at times. The storyline doesn't explore any other plausible reasons that she may feel suicide is her only option such as mental illness or family history or even a side effect of another illness, medication or situation.
There is no doubt that the actions of others could contribute to this state of mind but it is important to note that there are many factors that contribute to people taking their own lives. The show verbalises well all that her classmates have done to hurt her, but she does not discuss clearly that she is feeling depressed, anxious, or any other type of mental health issue that is most often present when people commit suicide.
The underlying, and predisposed vulnerabilities that may include any of the following have not been attended to: prior suicidal behaviours, history of self-harm (cutting, burning, etc.), mental health disorders, depression and anxiety, substance use history, history of psychotic symptoms, dual diagnosis, active military duty/veteran, impulsive, disruptive and antisocial behaviours, Borderline Personality Disorder/other personality disorder (research indicates 40 to 50 percent of those who commit suicide have personality disorder), disturbed family system (family history of depression and substance usage increases risk), gender (females make more suicide attempts and males complete more suicides) and sexual orientation (risk is higher in LGBT individuals). The show implies that the only acceptable reason to feel suicidal is if a person experiences trauma inflicted by others and completely cuts out any other internal causes.
The show also didn't take the opportunity to educate the audience about the early warning signs of suicidal individuals. There was a glimmer of hope in the beginning of the first episode when the teacher attempts to focus on the warning signs in class but the camera fades out, panning to Clays face and diverting the attention away from the lesson. A Netflix spokesperson mentioned that the show did subtly include warning signs by Hannah suddenly changing the way she looks to convey that people won't mention directly that they are suicidal. "For Hannah to go to Clay and say, “I am depressed and feeling suicidal,” may not have come off as authentic," the Netflix rep explained.
When Hannah actually went to her school counsellor, Mr. Porter, to seek help, opening up about her experience of being bullied, he provided no help or support. This highlights how seeking help may seem useless for those suffering from suicidal thoughts with even the Netflix spokesperson admitted that Mr. Porter was portrayed as “completely incompetent". As Ackerman explains, “Not only was he not compassionate or emotionally available to students, but he was clearly neglecting the ethical responsibilities of his profession, and doing things that would likely violate school policy and the law.” Although we need to keep in mind that this is a TV drama so obviously the most dramatic scenario would be chosen, it is concerning that this would make teens feel as if asking for help may be pointless.
“13 Reason Why, Beyond the Reasons” presents the audience with some suicide prevention resources but the audience was already wrapped up in the drama of it all and the tips were likely to fall on deaf ears. Perhaps it would have been a more responsible choice to broadcast this before the actual series started to expose people to the realities suicide prevention, changing the rose-tinted view the series has given the topic of suicide.
It's not all criticism. With a couple of adjustments the show does have the potential to turn into a tv series that has everyone hooked into a teachable moment. An American survey showed that over half of teenage viewers spoke to their parents about the issues brought up by the show. “From the parents’ perspective, they were able to get this window into what the world that their kids are living in may look like,” Dr. Moutier says. It opens up an important dialogue that has the potential to save lives.