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13 Reasons Why Creates a Dangerous Image of Suicide

Aiden Rosario, Guest Writer

If you are like most high school students with access to the internet, you have probably watched Netflix’s hit show 13 Reasons Why. The show follows the story of high school student Clay Jensen as he struggles to understand and cope with the recent suicide of his friend Hannah Baker. Hannah, having left no note, leaves behind a series of tapes that divulge the events in her life that pushed her to commit suicide. 13 Reasons Why is a valiant attempt to expose many of the signs of a person considering suicide, and it ends the season with the message to treat people with more kindness and to end bullying; however, the show trips over several pitfalls of the mental health field of literature and as a result may have devastating real-life consequences.  

I will not be discussing the merit of the show in terms of its being a show. I enjoyed 13 Reasons Why. I thought the plot was interesting, some of the characters were compelling, and I believe it did a lot of things well, even considering their odd penchant for purple lips. I liked the music even if it and the dialogue seemed heavy-handed at times. This article is not about some of the other controversial aspects of the show, nor is it about the accuracy or lack thereof in its portrayal of high school students.  I and many others are upset about this show for its negligent treatment of the issues it claims to champion, namely suicide, mental illness, and bullying.

Suicide claims the lives of more than 44,000 Americans each year making it the 10th leading cause of death in the US. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there are estimated to be around 25 attempts for every suicide. Suicide is heavily stigmatised and this results in underreporting of statistics, so these data may be understatements. Additionally these stigmas create an environment in which it is difficult for a suicidal person to seek or accept help, which only perpetuates the cycle we see in 13 Reasons Why.

13 Reasons Why attempts to bring into the limelight the concept that everyone is fighting their personal battles. It does a decent job at it too. Justin has his neglectful and drug-affected family, and Alex compromises his values to be included by the ‘in’ crowd. The show leaves the viewer with the message that It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow” (S1E13).

Even with the show’s success on this front, 13 Reasons Why fails monumentally with its key argument regarding suicide and mental health. For starters, Hannah Baker exhibits no symptoms of depression. It is monumentally clear, that besides some potential but not depicted PTSD, Hannah is mentally healthy albeit stressed and upset about her school and home life. Sadness and occasional apathy are not uncommon emotions. The show’s erasure of the depression factor trivialises the very real mental disorder and is, quite frankly, disrespectful to people struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Another dangerous trope the 13 Reasons Why perpetuates is that suicide is an act of pettiness and attention seeking. Hannah is a petty character; there is no doubt about that. She places the blame for her death on some very deserving people: Justin, Courtney, Marcus, Tyler, and Bryce, but she also villainizes Zach and Shari who make some poor decisions but do not truly contribute to Hannah’s decision. She pulls the already emotionally fragile Clay into the fray and blames her passive-aggressive indecisiveness on his following her explicit instructions. This passive-aggressiveness is exhibited again after she confronts Mr. Porter, storms out of his office in tears, and hinges her will to live on whether or not Mr. Porter follows her out the door. There is no way for either Clay or Mr. Porter to understand what Hannah needs out of these encounters, and, with the latter, her actions are intended specifically to incriminate the counselor. These actions contribute to the perception of her as a unstable and attention seeking teenager. She takes her life not because of a mental illness as corporal as cancer, but to prove a point. To make it clear that the actions of her peers have consequences. But this is one of the most damaging stereotypes of people who commit suicide: that they are attention-seeking and selfish. It makes it harder for the mentally well to sympathize with depressed people, and, especially for people with weak self esteems, it discourages reaching out for help.

The show argues that there are options besides suicide; however, there are two key issues with the way in which they present this key truth. The first lies in a deeply uncomfortable and misleading conversation between Skye and Clay in the eleventh episode. After discussing Hannah Baker’s death Clay draws attention to the scars on Skye’s wrist to which she replies, “It’s what you do instead of killing yourself. Suicide is for the weak,” which should scream fallaciousness to anyone who has been through a depressive episode, has harmed themselves, or has contemplated or attempted suicide. 13 Reasons Why almost encourages self-harm with this dialogue, which although functional for the storyline, is the complete anathema to the show’s intent. The second, and potentially most concerning, hamartia tables place in the final episode of the show. An apathetic Hannah confronts the poorly equipped Mr. Porter about her frustrations and concerns. The “one least chance for life” mentality is not uncommon for contemplative people, and therefore not a particularly unrealistic scenario for the show to cover. Mr. Porter, however, close to brushes aside Hannah’s troublesome speech, and fails to take action on either her rape allegations or her vocalized intention to take her life. This is illegal. A professional in a field such as Mr. Porter’s is legally bound to act on certain ways upon hearing either of the aforementioned situations. To the show’s merit, it is painfully aware of this fact although it does not necessarily make it clear to the audience, especially those watching who need to hear it most. This scene actually suggests that counselors are in general unwilling or simply unable to help those in need, and thus it cuts off another essential lifeline that could make the difference. suggests the removal of the option of seeking professional help in any form; it strips away a crucial safeguard that in many cases ends up being the defining factor to save someone’s life.

Our generation struggles with a Romanticization of suicide. It is depicted in poetic terms in literature, exalted as the ultimate byronic end on social media, and it is graphically and dramatically used as a plot device in television series. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention lists depictions of suicide in movies and television as a principal contributor to the Romanticization crisis, citing it as an environmental factor for suicide. These “graphic or sensationalised accounts,” as the AFSP denotes them, create a culture based around the perception of suicide as a means to an end, not the health crisis that it truly represents.  

The final nail in the coffin for 13 Reasons Why lies in its relationship with suicide itself. Firstly, the show presents suicide as a tool for enacting justice. It seems that Hannah only ends her life in order to prove a point, to torment those who tormented her, and to convince others to change their ways before someone else is put in her position. This is deeply flawed, because although the end goal is depicted on camera, the stigma of suicide in real life precludes it from having that effect, and instead creates a vicious cycle—as also depicted in the show. Additionally, 13 Reasons Why has often been criticised for its depiction of several severely disturbing scenes. Among two graphic and traumatising rape scenes, it covers in depth, and—I would argue—gratuitously the pivotal moment of the story: Hannah’s Suicide. The show “unblinkingly,” as the Chicago Tribune describes the scene, subjects viewers to three minutes of Hannah preparing for and committing suicide. Every moment, whimper, and traumatic visual is covered in excruciating detail, burning into our memory the tragic death of this fictional character. 13 Reasons Why has good intentions for presenting suicide this way. It is trying to shock viewers, to make them face the hard truth without averting their eyes; however, by graphically depicting her death, the show may have unwillingly contributed to the Romanticization of suicide, subjecting another generation of young people to the notion that suicide is poetic and glorious. It’s not.

Suicide is not beautiful. Suicide is not a means to an end.  It is not a tool of revenge or justice. People who commit or attempt suicide are not selfish or attention seeking, but extremely hurt individuals who are in need of assistance. 13 Reasons Why argues to the contrary. Possibly the most irritating failure, at least for me, was that it provides no resources for people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental illness (once again a violation of AFSP recommendations and guidelines).  

If you like 13 Reasons Why, great. Don’t let this article dampen your experience of the show, but keep these things in mind as you reflect upon the show’s content, message, and execution. Without footnotes such as these, the show transgresses rational constructs regarding the discussion of suicide. These dangerous errors on the shows part can be remedied only by a greater collective understanding of suicide, its factors, and its consequences. If you or someone you know is thinking about harming themselves, call 1-800-273-(8255) or text “TALK” to 741-741. If you want to learn more about the signs, causes, or facts regarding suicide, or you would like to make a donation to make a difference, go to the AFSP, The Jason Foundation, and The Trevor Project.


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13 Reasons Why Creates a Dangerous Image of Suicide