Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why has made a significant splash in the TV scene for its graphic depiction of teen suicide, its bracing look at high school culture and, above all, the blatant dismissal of highly-qualified mental health professionals' advice on how to portray self-harm.
Though the series has sparked heated debates on the internet about what is and isn’t permissible in pursuit of viewership, it's clear to me that the show flagrantly disregards the mental health and well being of the very people Netflix hopes will watch it.
(Warning: spoilers contained throughout.)
For the uninitiated, Thirteen Reasons Why retrospectively follows high school student Hannah Baker—a victim of slut-shaming, bullying and sexual abuse at the hands of her fellow classmates. The show is told in reverse because Hannah kills herself, but leaves behind a set of audio tapes containing the 13 reasons why (think: people) she chose to end her life.
Not only do the tapes provide the narrative for the show, they set off a series of smaller aftershocks throughout the school as her peers discover who was named in her recordings.
If warning bells are already sounding in your head, good—they should be. The very structure of the show plays out as a revenge fantasy. Hannah names her oppressors after death, sending them through the emotional ringer with the tapes as she leaves out zero details and, by extension, crystallizing a posse of terrified teens who all feel responsible for her death, publicly unravelling as a result.
As psychotherapist (and mom) Brooke Fox explains it, “Thirteen Reasons Why is a suicide revenge fantasy. Hannah received everything in death that she was hoping for: sympathy, deep regret, guilt, and ultimately—love.” This in and of itself makes the show dangerous for many viewers. It softens the reality of Hannah’s death while also delivering retribution to all those who hurt her in life—a dangerous combination, especially for teens.
Fox argues on her blog that “the concept of the permanence of death is not solidified for a teen at this point in development,” making the revenge portion feel all the more like a 'win' from Hannah’s perspective... though, of course, she would never be around to see it in real life. The creative liberties of the show’s timeline further blur this fact.
By all accounts, Thirteen Reasons Why breaks every rule in the book regarding what’s appropriate when discussing suicide.
Reporting On Suicide has a list of recommendations based on over 50 research studies done worldwide on how to safely depict suicide. Chief among these guidelines? Don’t glamorize suicide. Don’t describe the suicide method. Don’t sensationalize the suicide... and don’t talk about the contents of the suicide note, if there is one.
Granted, the narrative structure employed in Thirteen Reasons Why wouldn’t be able to exist without violating that last one; the entire show is an audio suicide note, essentially. But there’s something else that’s disturbing about that point. Throughout the tapes, Hannah is very clear about who is 'responsible' for her death. For anyone who may have lost a loved one to suicide, this thought must be unbearable, yet in the show, Hannah’s utterly glib attitude toward naming those who she holds accountable is strange at best, and downright cruel at worst.
We see the effects of Hannah creating her own narrative about her death most strikingly in the final episode, when Clay, who had an undefined romantic relationship with Hannah, tells a school counselor, “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her.” The show itself seems oddly impartial about whether we are supposed to agree with him. And this is seriously disturbing.
As mental health advocate and suicide attempt survivor Alyse Ruriani wrote on The Mighty, “To perpetuate the idea there is a straight, linear path to why a suicide happened by pointing fingers at peers, parents or another individual, is harmful. Suicide is a complex issue and it cannot be defined by placing the onus on someone else... It is upsetting to see a suicide portrayed as the suicidal person wanting others to feel guilty, rather than focusing on the person’s emotions and thoughts.”
Discussions of mental illness are conspicuously absent from Thirteen Reasons Why—a major missed opportunity for a show that was expected to introduce a much-needed cultural representation of mental health struggles into mainstream media.
Finally, the way the suicide itself is depicted is downright irresponsible. While Hannah’s character overdosed on pills in the book, the Netflix adaptation changes this in favor of a much more graphic, gruesome scene where Hannah ends her life.
While some viewers who defend the show may argue that this is intended to be a scare tactic to discourage suicide, mental health professionals agree that it may well have the opposite effect.
“Teenage suicide is contagious. We’ve known for over three decades that when kids watch television where they depict a suicide, they’re more likely to attempt and they’re more likely to actually [kill themselves],” explains Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute to Today.
He elaborates: “Three decades ago, studies were done after there were four TV programs on the networks about teen suicides. About two weeks after the event, versus the two weeks before the show was seen on TV, there was a definite increase in both attempts and actual completions." Koplewicz says Netflix has has neglected its ethics and responsibility by airing the shot "because it ignores decades worth of research and public health policy on how we take care of...vulnerable teenagers.”
While some viewers applaud the show’s unflinching depiction, The American Foundation For Suicide Prevention found that “risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method,” something that Thirteen Reasons Why takes a step further, showing in explicit detail Hannah’s end.
It’s worth noting that the potential fallout from the show was well known by Netflix staffers, who called in psychologist and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education Dan Reidenberg for input, according to Syracuse. Reidenberg advised that Netflix drop the project, voicing his deep concerns about how the content would effect teenagers. Clearly, Netflix brushed off his advice.
Though Dr. Koplewicz's points of irresponsibility seem valid, there is something important about Thirteen Reasons Why worth noting. The fact that it has resonated with so many teenagers (many of whom leap to defend the show when people like me write critiques like this) gives critical insight into those who may be most at risk for contemplating suicide.
The fact that Hannah’s behavior does seem understandable, logical and reasonable to so many high schoolers in situations like hers cannot be ignored. As the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention has indicated, this is a 'teachable moment' and it’s a moment that should be seized to discuss mental health with those closest to us.
As one teen told The Cut, “Parents don’t realize what we go through—how horrible teenagers are, the words they say, the things that happen, what goes around, people’s nudes being leaked all the time—they just don’t understand.”
Another student felt that the relationship between bullying and Hannah’s suicide felt realistic to her. “Most of my friends have watched it or want to watch it," she said. "I feel like what my friends and I really talk about now is Hannah’s story, and how each thing really affects her to the point where she made the decision she did.” While it’s troubling to hear real-life teenagers for whom Hannah’s story rings true, it’s an important glimpse into a private life that’s usually hidden from adults.
If any good is to come from Thirteen Reasons Why, it will be that—the opening of a door into an individual’s darkest thoughts, so that we can intervene before suicide becomes an option.
If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to one of the resources below:
National Suicide Prevention online chat
National Suicide Prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-8255