This article contains content discussing suicide and mental health that some readers may find distressing.
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Netflix recently released the second season of its hit teen drama “13 Reasons Why”. The show deals with heavy topics such as suicide, substance abuse, sexual assault and bullying, so it’s no surprise that it’s garnered the controversy that it has. The show proves contentious, with some admiring it as a conversation starter and others seeing it as problematic and insensitive. I would advise however that anyone who feels affected by such topics treats the show (and by extension this article) with caution.
There are no doubt people out there who feel represented by the show and believe it to be telling an important story. If you are such a person, you are perfectly entitled to that opinion. I would nevertheless like to explain in my opinion why the show has had such negative feedback from mental health professionals and why it can pose such a serious risk to those dealing with mental illness, as well as to the attitudes displayed to mental illness as a whole.
1) Explicit Depiction of Suicide
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention have an extensive guide of do’s and don’ts when it comes to depiction of suicide in the media. 13 Reasons Why follows few, if any of these recommendations. According to the Foundation, risk of suicide increases when the story explicitly depicts the suicide method. They also suggest avoiding explicitly showing the location or immediate impact of the act. Both of these are recommendations that 13 Reasons Why seems to pay absolutely no attention to.
2) Bullying as the Sole Cause of Suicide
Another problem with the show is its narrow view of the causes of suicide. While bullying is obviously an abhorrent thing to do to someone and no doubt contributes to mental illness and suicide, mental health professionals advise against portraying suicide in such a simplistic way. The Foundation for Suicide Prevention suggests that those wishing to depict suicide should refer to the findings which show that pre-existing mental illness or substance abuse have been found in 90% of those who have died by suicide. Journalist Anna Silman wrote “13 Reasons Why offers very little insight into the psychology of suicide”. The show instead portrays suicide as some cause and effect relation, barely ever showing the psychological and physical toll on Hannah in-between her 13 reasons.
3) Suicide as Revenge
Another problem with this portrayal of suicide as a “cause and effect relation” is that it makes out that Hannah’s death was somehow justified, that it was akin to murder with everyone “killing” Hannah in one way or another. The Foundation for Suicide Prevention again directly advises against this depiction. Suicide is not a crime but a public health issue. Suicide isn’t something for which blame can be handed out and people can be held to account for. Middle school teacher Elizabeth Peyton points out the problem with 13 Reasons Why is that it “posits suicide as the ultimate “eff you” to all the people you leave behind”. As the show itself points out, this can be incredibly damaging to those around the person who has died by suicide. Anyone with any familiarity of the type of abusive relationship where your partner says “I’ll kill myself if you leave me” knows just how crippling this can be. This is abuse.
4) Romanticizing Suicide
One other way 13 Reasons Why ignores the advice of mental health professionals is in it’s romanticising of suicide. As mental health campaigner Sarah Huyler asks: “Does a show that depicts a young girl who uses her own death to inflict pain upon others really deserve to be put on a pedestal?”. The show seems to come from the long line of depiction of suicide as tragedy, as a justice-bringing act; in fact, suicide is just the fatal end to a long-standing illness, just as how a heart attack is the end point of heart disease. But like heart disease there are treatments and options available to those who suffer from depression or any other mental illness.
5) There’s Nobody to Talk to
This is perhaps the worst message that the show puts forward, that “the audience is shown what not to do without examples of what they actually should do”. Not only do none of the people suffering from issues in the show reach out for help but the one time Hannah actually does, she’s punished for it. All adults, counsellors and teachers are shown as inept when dealing with mental health issues and there is not one positive example of reaching out or cause for hope that things can get better. Indeed it only took until the second season for those behind the show to recognise the need for trigger warnings and actual discussion of the issues, finally recognising the mental health behind suicide in the character of Skye.
So who is there to talk to?
Mental illness is debilitating, it wrecks your friendships, your relationships, your family and it cripples you till you can’t move. It’s more than not just being happy, it’s a void, sometimes you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, it’s like a weight is pulling you down. You could have everything you wanted in the world and yet it would push you down all the same. It’s not something you can simply get over or assign blame to but a filter that warps everything in the world around you. You might get the impression from the show that there is nobody out there to help but there are so many amazing people just a dial or a message away whose every goal in life is to alleviate your pain however they can. So don’t suffer alone.
If you are struggling with your mental health, find out about the university’s counselling service here.
If you prefer to talk to someone anonymously, please call Nightline on 0151 795 8100. Lines are open from 8pm-8am every night during term time.
Outside of term time you can call Samaritans at 116 123.