The ‘13 Reasons Why’ Debate as a Precious Moment for Action
As we move into “Mental Health Month,” the new Netflix series, ‘13 Reasons Why,’ is at the epicenter of conversation. The show depicts the inarguably graphic suicide of its main character, Hannah Baker. A film adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel, ‘13 Reasons Why’ has been wildly popular; inspiring organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to host conversations and webinars on how we can approach it as a “teachable moment.” ‘13 Reasons’ addresses a number of divisive issues, which come at a time of intense disagreement over the limits to freedom of expression. While each of us has the agency to choose whether or not we watch the show, an important question remains: how do we mitigate the risk of suicide contagion, particularly in vulnerable adolescents?
The show is not without its flaws, as it simplifies suicide to a mere reaction to events. It should, instead, present suicide as a preventable consequence of compounded traumatic events within a complicated framework of mental illness. Hannah’s decision was premeditated and came out of complex challenges with trauma, perceived shortcomings, undiagnosed depression, and abandonment. Those with a history of trauma, and those with children, are delivering strong arguments of opposition. Fear is induced by the show, as it pushes parents to imagine losing a child to suicide. Parents are also being challenged to consider the possibility that their teenagers could be contributing to the bullying epidemic. Many feel the show was a missed opportunity for advocating preventative measures, but in truth, it sends a strong message that viewers have the power to apply its lessons and prevent similar outcomes. Those with a history of trauma are fearful of the potentially-negative impact of the show. I know I was. Concerns like these have sparked a major debate globally, inciting both viciously angry judgments and expressions of desperate relief. I have yet to find a perspective in major media from someone who identifies as a mental illness sufferer. As both a chronically-depressed viewer, and someone whose life has been directly impacted by suicide, I have a unique and important position in the debate.
Over the last three years, I have taken a radical approach to my circumstances, speaking out about my fight against mental illness. I’ve heard from a number of my readers that my writing has been life-saving to them, and this is something I have never taken lightly. It’s a privilege to watch my readers join me in challenging the stigma that has silenced them. Approaching mental illness and suicide publicly and unapologetically, as ‘13 Reasons’ does, may save many lives.
Thousands of high schools have engaged in dialogues in the wake of ‘13 Reasons,’ talking about the issues and integrating new preventative resources and protocols. Parents who have historically shied away from these difficult conversations, are increasingly motivated to nurture safe spaces in which their children feel comfortable opening up. At the very core of ‘13 Reasons,’ is the frightening motivation teenagers have to use suicide as a ‘solution.’ Mental illness and vicious bullying exist in every school and the show takes these issues head on, challenging American media’s tendency to avoid them entirely.
Years after high school, I publicly chronicled my experience with depression, from the everyday triumphs of making it from breakfast to dinner without breaking down, to living heavily medicated. I shared photos of my weathered face mid-breakdown, blogged about perpetual sadness, and spoke at mental health events. Channeling my energy toward fighting this enormous weight that many face alone, I told the truth. ‘13 Reasons’ made the same valiant attempt on a much larger stage, shining light on a character who can be found in any high school in America. With depression comes both challenges and opportunities; it will never let you have immunity, but it will strengthen the system within you that fights back. As adolescents, we simply lack the tools and insight to realize this, and it can be deadly.
I could have been a statistic myself. The slow, silent deterioration of my mental health began in adolescence, and while I decided to take a public approach to the problem, I wasn’t able to do so until much later. High school is a vicious breeding ground for hate crimes, judgment, bullying, and ultimately, silence. ‘13 Reasons’ captures the way in which social media infiltrates us with unrealistic ideals and exacerbates social hierarchies, making us feel perpetually inadequate and deepening our harrowing insecurities. I was a major target of harassment in high school and heard it all, “Is she gay…Is she cheating on him…Did you see that picture of her,” my peers gossiped. Despite being funny, smart, and driven, Hannah is labeled as the girl with the “best ass,” and someone who is “easy” and overly sensitive. Calculated acts of hate, fear and ignorance come with a slew of unfortunate consequences, and Hannah serves as one of many examples.
I remain convicted in arguing that while suicide contagion is a risk with agonizing consequences, it is critical to also consider the number of lives that may be saved by a show like ‘13 Reasons.’ Further, the show does not shy away from the reality of suicide contagion, as one of Hannah’s friends, Alex, also attempts suicide at the end. The buzz-inducing on-screen suicide scene has many feeling that major ethical boundaries have been crossed, but in reality, the problem may be us and not the show itself. Most of us are naturally inclined to gravitate toward stories involving pain and death, while lacking judgment when it comes to eschewing content that may be harmful to our mental health. We can’t allow our fears to make us complicit in the lethal erasure of those who suffer.
Debate over what constitutes an ethical representation of suicide have come to overshadow the importance of other powerful messages in ‘13 Reasons,’ such as those about sexual assault, bullying, and the critical importance of basic human decency. As we fight over whether the show should exist at all, an emotionally-riveting narrative comes through, which addresses teen bullying, the effects of objectifying girls who are navigating questions of personal identity, painful invasions of privacy, being LGBTQ in a non-inclusive environment, and, of course, the unfiltered reality of teen suicide.
Fueling the problem, is the tendency for adults to trivialize what feels crushing and inflexible for teenagers. Victim-shaming is compounded with this issue, and educators and guardians are often unprepared to receive the information when teenagers come forward to report thoughts of suicide or a sexual assault. Anonymity becomes a twofold problem in and of itself: abusers hide behind social media platforms and shield their identities as they bully their peers; meanwhile, those considering suicide are petrified to speak, particularly if it means they must reveal their identities. ‘13 Reasons’ is an opportunity to educate everyone who watches, including those directly involved with an at-risk individual as well as those who have simply observed concerning behavior.
The number of girls committing suicide has been increasing disproportionately by the year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for teenagers and still our society strays from the conversations that may help prevent it. ‘13 Reasons’ shows the reality of suicide, unfiltered, the collateral damage it causes, and that people who know someone who committed suicide are more likely to make an attempt.
‘13 Reasons’ nails what it’s like to be a high-functioning depressed person, which can be more alienating than the alternative. “High functioners” often suffer alone and raise no ‘red flags,’ which can render them invisible simply by virtue of the façade. As characters in the show repeatedly say, Hannah Baker ‘did not seem suicidal,’ exposing a common misconception surrounding mental wellness. Hannah was repeatedly victimized and abandoned by those who should’ve looked out for her.
Shortly before Hannah’s suicide, you can begin to see her surrender to the challenges around her. Hannah lost herself and her ability to think rationally. This is the importance of ‘13 Reasons’: we have an obligation to help those who feel they are slowly dying inside, find a life-saving solution. There will always be the one person who can’t come through for you and, sadly, for those of us who have experienced depression, one critical person can have the impact of a crowd. Hannah wasn’t able to see that while what she was going through was major, she could overcome the voices of hate and judgment that tried to worm their way into a space that was sacred, a space that was hers to own.
Mental illness is at the forefront of American consciousness. As more of us tell our stories, de-stigmatization and normalization of the mental health experience will happen. The proliferation of honest stories will start this movement, but more will be needed. We must demand policy and support. Mental health professionals must be held accountable for the newly regulated co-pay policies they ignore. Access to mental health education and resources must become widespread. We must address the obvious link between mental illness and incarceration.
Together, we have the power to transform the mental health system. Mail your stories in, post them on Facebook, do whatever you feel you can do. Social media platforms subsist on constant, interconnected expressions of human experience. We can shape them into more supportive spaces where the bravest voices, in pursuit of self-acceptance and positive social change, prevail. Resist the pervasive negative energy you encounter and support others instead. Even if you've never struggled personally, you can publicly express support for strangers, help raise awareness and create solidarity.
The show leaves us with one final, powerful message, as the consequences of complacency and bullying become increasingly realized. Character Clay Jensen says to Mr. Porter, the school guidance counselor, “the way we treat each other and look out for each other, it has to get better somehow.” Each viewer of ‘13 Reasons Why’ has the unique opportunity to change the fate of the Hannah in their own lives; to save a life.