Trigger warning and spoilers ahead.
By now you’ve probably seen or heard of 13 Reasons Why. Released on March 31, 2017, it’s the adaptation series of the 2007 best-selling book by Jay Asher. It’s about high school student Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who completed suicide and left a shoebox of cassette tapes to be passed around 13 people from her school.
The tapes contain Hannah’s voice recounting how the 13 people are responsible for her decision to take her own life. The show starts with Hannah’s love interest, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who had just received the tapes with a map that sends him on a scavenger hunt for evidence.
As Netflix’s most popular teen show this year, it not only gained a massive fanbase, but also backlash from the mental health community. Here’s why the show is both dangerous and helpful.
What they did wrong:
1. It glamorized suicide.
While Asher said that they wanted the show to raise awareness about the consequences of suicide, they do the one major thing that mental health experts have been warning the media to avoid for years—glamorize suicide. 13 Reasons Why violated the guidelines, especially when they graphically depicted Hannah's suicide, step by step. This increases the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals—those who have lost someone to suicide and/or have a history of depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health issues. [Reporting On Suicide]
Add that to the show’s embellishments—cassette tape recordings (Yes, in the year 2017), a vintage Walkman, a John Green-esque love story, and an indie soundtrack—and you have the makings of a romanticized suicide story. But hey, that’s Hollywood. Could they have gotten the undivided attention of teens without these frills?
2. It oversimplified suicide.
Suicide is a difficult topic to tackle. Instead of educating the audience on how to spot the signs or how to seek professional help, they spent 13 episodes depicting Hannah’s suicide as a means of exposing the peers who hurt her and making them feel guilty. “To perpetuate the idea that there is a straight, linear path to why a suicide happened by pointing fingers at peers, parents, or another individual, is harmful,” mental health advocate Alyse Ruriani wrote in The Mighty.
Studies show that 90% of suicides are associated with mental illness and the result of complex factors. For example, if a suicide victim’s trigger is bullying, a psychological autopsy could reveal other factors that led to the suicide, such as unresolved childhood issues, external stressors, and underlying mental health conditions. There is never one linear explanation for a person’s suicide.
3. It portrayed suicide as a revenge act.
In one episode, they gave us fantasy scenes—like Hannah and Clay ending up together—in order to teach teens that suicide robs you of a potentially bright future. But for the rest of the show, they focused on blaming the 13 people. Rather than exploring the complex reasons people kill themselves, 13 Reasons Why fueled the fallacy that suicide is an act of vengeance on those who made you suffer, the only way you can be truly heard, or a tool to blackmail people into being nice to you.
4. It failed to discuss mental health.
Though they claim to be on the side of mental health, this show doesn’t focus on that. They didn’t address if Hannah developed a mental disorder, and they showed subtle signs only in the last episode. Not everyone is trained to understand mental health, so the average viewer won’t easily spot these signs. Netflix’s other teen series, Degrassi: Next Class, did a more accurate portrayal of a suicidal teen.
For those who are educated on spotting the signs, you’ll notice that the symptoms are more prevalent in the other characters: Clay’s mom tried to coax him back to therapy and medication; cheerleader Jessica Davis showed signs of PTSD and depression after the rape; Justin Foley exhibited signs of depression stemming from family abuse; Skye Miller is a cutter. And let’s not get started on Alex Standall and Tyler Down. Why did they choose to conceal Hannah’s symptoms?
5. It fueled other suicide myths and stereotypes.
There’s the danger of devaluating suicide and bullying. Mental health advocate Alicia Raimundo explained, “Your bullying experience is valid even if you were never suicidal, and your feelings of suicide are valid even if you were never bullied.” Bullying does not directly cause suicide, but it can affect the victim’s mental health. We can’t prevent suicide by simply preventing bullying, and we shouldn’t simply prevent bullying for fear of suicide. [Huffington Post]
Instead of dispelling myths, the show focused more on the drama and blame game. Hannah’s snarky voice tapes made cynics interpret her as selfish and dramatic. Those who are going through suicidal tendencies and depression in real life will all the more be stigmatized with these stereotypes.
6. Hannah is a misrepresentation.
“Hannah was bullied, assaulted, and ignored while she was alive, but her death and the tapes she left behind changed that. She gained power through suicide, and that’s a dangerous message,” depression survivor Jaclyn Grimm, 18, wrote in USA Today. Studies show that only 1/3 of suicide victims leave a note, let alone record several cassette tapes that revolve around a blame-fueled story. Real-life suicide notes are not always laced with anger and vengeance. Hannah’s character, although deserving of love and empathy, is a misrepresentation of real suicide stories.
7. It could trigger suicide contagion, also known as copycat suicide.
Ever since the show became a hit, there have been numerous social media posts coming from vulnerable people who were triggered back to depression and suicidal ideation after watching the series. Suicide hotlines in first-world countries like the US and Australia have reported an increase in phone calls.
What they did right:
8. It showed that suicide can happen to anyone.
One of the biggest fallacies of suicide is that it happens only to certain demographics, like drug addicts and “emos.” In reality, it can happen to any race, age, financial status, personality, religion, and upbringing. Hannah Baker represents your average friend from school or work—someone who seems fine and dandy on the surface.
9. It emphasized kindness.
Fans are focusing on the show’s main message: “Kindness can save a life.” But there’s a danger in how this was presented (see #3). While kindness goes a long way, the mental health community stresses that it’s not always enough to save a suicidal person. “I don’t like the message that if we’re all just kind and nice to each other, then [suicide] won’t happen,” shared Stephanie Whiteside, a producer whose best friend committed suicide despite being surrounded by a supportive loved ones. “We couldn’t prevent it. I don’t want everybody else in that position to feel that if they had done something differently, then their friend would still be alive.” There are many real-life stories of people surrounded by so much love and support, and yet ended up still completing suicide. The reasons were complex and non-linear (see #2).
10. It showed that there are different truths.
After Clay finally listened to his tape, he said, “She’s not telling the truth!” Tony Padilla replied, “She’s telling her truth. I don’t know what your truth is. And I don’t know what you’ll do when you find hers.”
This is a breakthrough moment. A suicide note is never the concluding evidence, because when you delve into the accounts of real suicide stories, you will find that people undergoing extreme depression exhibit distorted thoughts. Other loved ones present in the suicidal person’s life have their own accounts. There are many sides to a story, and somewhere in the middle is the truth. No one’s truth is the exact, all-encompassing truth.
11. It got everyone’s attention.
If there’s one thing that 13 Reasons Why attained that no TED Talk, Pulitzer prize-winning book, or trending mental health article could get, it’s the massive global attention. The force of this show is a powerful thing—and with that comes great responsibility.
What we hope they will do in the future
12. Emphasize getting help.
Now that the floodgates have opened, what the people behind 13 Reasons Why can do is actively spread the hotlines and resources for people to get help. It’s too bad the offensive memes are spreading faster than 13 Reasons Why’s mental health directory. Even Netflix showed ignorance when they posted this tweet.
13. Spread proper education.
In “Beyond The Reasons,” the 30-minute behind-the-scenes special, executive producer Selena Gomez and the cast talked about what the show means to them. The popstar took a break from performing last year after battling depression and anxiety. She sees this show as “something that can hopefully help people, because suicide should never ever be an option.”
While we applaud 13 Reasons Why for jumpstarting the global conversation on suicide prevention and spreading the hashtag #ReasonsWhyYouMatter, their official Facebook page lacks guidelines and educational articles.
Sure, fans paid attention when the cast got matching tattoos of a semicolon, the suicide prevention symbol. But what the audience needs is access to proper resources. The last thing we want to hear in the next few months is that 13 Reasons Why sparked a suicide contagion instead of prevention.
As Hannah Baker once said, “No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people.” The same goes for this fictional show.
If you are feeling suicidal or depressed, call the following hotlines:
Crisis Line (for non-sectarian, non-judgmental telephone counseling):
Landline: (02) 893-7603
Globe Duo: 0917-800-1123 / 0917-506-7314
Sun Double Unlimited: 0922-893-8944 / 0922-346-8776
Hopeline (24/7 hotline):
Landline: (02) 804-4673
Globe and TM: 2919
Center for Family Ministries (for spiritual counseling):
Landline: (02) 426-4289 to 92
Kate Alvarez is a survivor of suicide loss and depression. She is a mental health advocate and the founder of SOS Philippines.