13 Reasons Why and How Not To Tell Stories About Suicide
Enormous trigger warning for suicide. Seriously.
Look, there are a lot of things I think are important about Netflix new show, adapted from a popular young adult novel of the same name, about a teenage girl who kills herself and leaves behind 13 tapes that detail the people and the reasons behind her desicion. It’s been billed as an important show for it’s teen audience, and there’s no arguing that, in some ways, it is; it examines difficult issues like rape and slut-shaming with unflinching realness, for example, especially their relevance and evolution in a social media age (God, I feel so old writing that). But I think what the show gets wrong is it’s attitude towards mental illness, and it’s depiction of suicide in particular.
13 Reasons Why was billed to me as a timely and eloquent look at mental illness in teenagers, and I cannot overstate how important I think it is to tell stories that look at mental illness in an unromanticized and unglamorous way. I cannot overstate, either, that if this show has helped even one person seek out help for their depression or suicidal ideation, then I am in no way trying to undermine that. Mental illness can be painfully isolating, and if these stories make someone feel a little less alone, sincerely, good. I know my natural tone on this blog is sarcastic, but just make like I actually mean it for a second, you know? Because I really do.
One of the reasons I was so interested in this show is because I was a mentally ill teenager. I was a teenager who considered suicide. And most if not all of the media I saw at this time depicted mental illness, especially in women, as either something glamorously distant, or something with a specific timeline. These bad things happened to this character, and now they are depressed. Those stories made sense; they had a beginning, middle, and an end, usually at the close of an episode when the character, with loved ones gathered around, would resolve to get help and the scene would fade to black. But mental illness doesn’t make sense like that; I had a wonderful family, great friends, a comfortable life, and yet I still had these problems, and that just didn’t fit with the narrative I was shown in the media. So, when 13 Reasons Why came out, I really hoped I would find a story that presented mental illness for what it often is: something that just happens. Anyone who has mental illness or knows people who suffer from it know that it’s sprawling and messy and often without any quantifiable reason.
But this show doesn’t look at it that way. The lead character, Hannah goes through a series of painful experiences and offs herself as a direct result of them. The show doesn’t even, in any profound way, deal with mental illness. Bear with me here: 13 Reasons Why has Hannah experience this disturbing stuff – rape, slut-shaming, bullying – and then jumps more or less directly to her suicide (the graphic nature of which is undeniably exploitative, no matter what the creators of the show say).
I’m certainly not saying that these kinds of experiences don’t lead their victims to hurt themselves, but the show jumped over the possibility of any actual mental illness that might have sprung for them or, indeed, have been pre-existing prior to these events. We don’t see Hannah grappling with depression, PTSD, anxiety, suicidal ideation; we see her killing herself, and in great detail. Not only that, but we see her killing herself in great detail and finally forcing everyone to pay attention to her and her pain.
I think this is what bugs me more than anything about the show. Yes, of course, when someone kills themselves, their memory echoes outward, and people who may not have paid that much attention to them beforehand might display increased interest in their lives in an attempt to make sense of what has happened. But that isn’t what the show displays. 13 Reasons Why has Hannah leaving behind a series of tapes that force everyone to listen to her, force those who wronged her to feel guilty, and force everyone to acknowledge her pain. She gets everything she wanted, by killing herself. This is not a good message. Even though the show focuses on the pain of the people around her, she’s dead, and dead in the knowledge that she likely achieved what she wanted through her suicide.
Look, as I said upthread, if this show helps anyone with their suicidal thoughts or helps someone reach out to a person in their life they are concerned about, then it has done an undeniably great thing. But I’m concerned that it’s more likely to send out a damaging message; one that says, in suicide, you can finally be heard in a way you never could in life. 13 Reasons Why has good intentions, but that doesn’t overrule the fact that the show itself sends out a questionable moral as a whole.
If you’re having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone who can help you and/or contact one of the following services: