13 Reasons Why is the latest Netflix show everyone is obsessed with. Whilst it’s received a lot of praise for its diversity, for flipping the silent dead girl trope, and for its overarching message to be kinder to others, there are a growing number of people who are criticising the show’s troubling portrayal of youth suicide and the risk it poses to vulnerable viewers.
If you haven’t watched it, 13 Reasons Why is about the suicide of teenager Hannah Baker, who records a series of 13 tapes before she dies, detailing why she blames certain people for her death. She intends for the tapes to be passed from person to person, so each can understand the full story and the impact they had on her life – and death. We primarily view events through the character of Clay, a friend of Hannah’s who, already struggling with her death, receives the tapes and has to grapple with the brutal revelations about her experiences, and the idea that he was part of the problem in her eyes.
After listening to the tapes, Clay comes to the conclusion, “It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other… it has to get better.” The intended message – and the one many fans are focusing on – is clear. Be kind. You could save a life.
It’s a noble idea, but unfortunately it’s embedded in a show that doesn’t effectively explore mental health and that ultimately uses suicide as the catalyst for a revenge fantasy. Rather than a nuanced exploration of the complex reasons people kill themselves, experts say 13 Reasons Why presents a rather simplistic blame game, dangerously reinforcing the incorrect idea that suicide is the only way you can truly be heard, or that it can be used as a tool to make those who have hurt you suffer.
Kristen Douglas, a spokesperson for Australian youth mental health organisation Headspace, told BuzzFeed that the framing device of Hannah’s “reasons” is harmful and unrealistic. “She’s telling the story in a way that means she’s getting resolution about her suicide, and that’s not a reality. If young people die by suicide it’s very final; you don’t get to see the reaction of people, you don’t get to see the reaction of bullies, you don’t get to be involved in your own funeral. Sadly, I think young people sometimes don’t always fully understand the finality of death. You don’t get resolution about that.”
While Selena Gomez, who is an executive producer on the series, revealed in the show’s behind-the-scenes special, Beyond the Reasons, that she wanted to adapt 13 Reasons Why to help people, “because suicide should never be an option”, Douglas explained that the show actually risks suggesting the opposite.
“If you’re a young person viewing this content, feeling entrapped, bullied, like things aren’t going to get better, like, ‘I wish I could tell these people to stop, they don’t know how far they’re pushing me’… this all of a sudden becomes a very real option,” she said.
Aside from the plot itself, experts claim the show also puts people at risk through its incredibly graphic and drawn-out depiction of the act of suicide (there are also multiple graphic rape scenes). The creators of the show have repeatedly defended this decision, saying that it was intended to make people uncomfortable and to show the painful and irreversible consequences of suicide.
“We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted to be very clear that there is nothing in any way worthwhile about suicide,” executive producer Brian Yorkey said in Beyond the Reasons. In an open letter, he elaborated on this sentiment, saying that experts were consulted to ensure the show accurately depicted the “how” and the “why”. Meanwhile, writer Nic Scheff has released a statement saying he wanted the suicide scene to be as graphic and realistic as possible, because he thought it would save lives.
While their intentions are good, there’s a major issue with their reasoning: multiple studies from around the world have shown that explicit depictions and descriptions of suicide actually increase the rate of suicide by that method (though most of these studies focused on media reporting of suicides, not fictional plot lines).
“Children and teens are very exposed to things like contagion and high risk if they see another person’s suicide,” Douglas told BuzzFeed. “It’s why we have a whole range of guidelines for media in Australia, but sadly things like Netflix don’t apply the same guidelines.”
Douglas said that Headspace has received an increase in teens, parents, and schools contacting them as a result of 13 Reasons Why, with many saying it has triggered suicidal thoughts. Others have taken to social media to express similar feelings. Their concern and pain is in stark contrast to the hundreds of memes, fan theories, and obsessive shipping the show has spawned. It highlights what is one of the biggest problems of all: at the end of the day, the show uses teen suicide as entertainment. While pop culture can and should explore such serious subjects, 13 Reasons Why does not do so in an effective, deep, or helpful way.
Sarah Chedra, a 20-year-old psychology student who has borderline personality disorder and major depression, told BuzzFeed that the way 13 Reasons Why presents suicide and mental health as an entertaining puzzle for people to solve has caused her a lot of distress. “I appreciate the fact it's bringing up suicide and how to look out for it, but in all honesty the fact that people watch this for entertainment really offends me… It actually caused me to be triggered (i.e. caused a temporary suicidal thought period), because this show made a drama out of something meant to be so sensitive and personal.”
“Yes, we do need to talk about risks and young people’s mental health, but there are helpful and responsible ways to talk about suicide, and there’s harmful and irresponsible ways to talk about suicide,” said Douglas. “Whilst [13 Reasons Why] is raising a really important issue, it’s doing it in a really harmful way.”
If you need to talk to someone in Australia, you can call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue Australia on 1300 22 4636, or Headspace on 1800 650 890. If you're in the US, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1800 273 8255.