Why I Wish I Didn't Watch '13 Reasons Why'
Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
I recently finished watching “13 Reasons Why” on Netflix, and part of me wishes I didn’t watch it at all. Not because it’s a bad show, but because it hit just a little too close to home. The show provides a glimpse into the life and ultimate suicide of Hannah Baker, a fictional American teenager struggling to navigate high school amidst the rampant sexism and bullying that unfortunately shapes much of her experience. As the show unfolds, the audience, alongside Hannah’s friends, family and peers, learn the reasons Hannah ultimately decided to end her life. I finished “13 Reasons Why” in record time, and although I found the show to be beautifully made and undeniably impactful, it became clear I was not the show’s intended audience.
The message of “13 Reasons Why” is not one hope, optimism or reassurance, but of tragedy, grief and the urgent need for action. I think there’s plenty to be learned from the fictional but poignant story of Hannah Baker — especially for men and anyone unacquainted with the emotional and mental damage inflicted by casual misogyny and rape culture. However, for me, as a woman who has long battled depression and suicidal ideation, the show’s well-intentioned message about mental illness, bullying and sexism was not shocking but rather reaffirming of the dangerous ideals that have often left me feeling hopeless and alone. When I finished the show, I found myself drowning once again in toxic, dangerous thoughts.
“13 Reasons Why” is a beautiful and raw representation of what is unfortunately familiar for far too many young women. The exceptionally realistic portrayals of sexual assault and rape, the resulting ostracization of the survivor rather than the perpetrator and the lack of justice are uncomfortable, but notably accurate representations of reality for some survivors. I can think of many men who could learn from the discomfort and pain presented in “13 Reasons Why.” However, the series is riddled with triggering content, and for someone already struggling with depression, it can be a painful reminder of the heartache and loss.
Though “13 Reasons Why” centers specifically on the experience of teenagers, its content is likely familiar to women who have lived through similar trauma — and to anyone who struggles with depression, social anxiety or another mental disorder. It’s been years since I graduated high school, but I clearly remember the sexual harassment, the hurtful comments and rumors and the boys who grabbed me and laughed it off while I was punished for reacting. Truthfully, a lot of these things don’t disappear after high school. Oftentimes the whispers just migrate from the cafeteria to the bar and from hallways to social media. It’s much easier to avoid petty drama and “bullies” as an adult, but misogyny doesn’t go away, and when you live with mental illness, regardless of age, these comments and behaviors can cause significant damage.
Hannah’s mental health is never seriously discussed in “13 Reasons Why” – which is particularly shocking for a show revolving around teen suicide – but there are hints at her depression as perceived by her peers and family, including her abrupt haircut, social isolation and loss of interest in old hobbies and activities. For much of my life, I’ve lived with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and my recent diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) helped me make sense of the long held fear of abandonment that continues to haunt my relationships. Hannah’s sensitivity to perceived abandonment, rejection and isolation – eventually leading her to take her own life – felt incredibly relevant to my own life. I may not be a teenager anymore, but living with BPD causes me to struggle with overwhelming feelings of emptiness and shame, emotional instability, suicidal ideation and unstable relationships — all themes throughout “13 Reasons Why,” causing me to feel triggered by nearly the entire series.
For someone struggling with symptoms of BPD, the show can come across as proof that perhaps relationships are not worth the risk after all. Like many shows, “13 Reasons Why” is problematic in a number of ways. I feel certain there are plenty of women, survivors and therapists who oppose the show’s approach to suicide awareness and rape culture. It contains, for instance, a troubling lack of resources for depressed or suicidal viewers. Hannah may have believed hope was lost, but the show failed to emphasize even if it doesn’t seem like it, there are always options and there is always hope.
Additionally, I found there to be an alarming lack of trigger warnings considering the content. For these reasons, “13 Reasons Why” could cause more harm than good amongst the very audience for whom it intends to advocate. “13 Reasons Why” isn’t particularly hopeful or optimistic about the future, and it’s clear the series was not made for someone like me.
However, I don’t believe that was the point. “13 Reasons Why” highlights the impacts of social pressures on girls’ self-esteem and mental health, and it forces the audience to come face-to-face with what is, for many people, reality. In that way, this show is incredibly important. It provides commentary on issues often swept under the rug and leaves the audience feeling bad, perhaps even driven to make a change. In my opinion, quality art is not necessarily optimistic or comfortable – and “13 Reasons Why” is certainly uncomfortable. Creating a series that adequately and realistically addresses mental health, suicide and sexual assault is undeniably tricky territory.
As a woman and a suicide attempt survivor who still struggles with mental health, I didn’t find “13 Reasons Why” to be unrealistic. Rather, I found it to be such a dark but accurate portrayal of familiar experiences that it triggered emotional responses I didn’t expect. The overall message surrounding the need for change surrounding mental health, rape culture and everyday misogyny is powerful but dismal. Mr. Porter was correct when he said you can’t love someone back to life, but suicide and mental illness are much more complicated than the show lets on. Everybody can, however, play their part to cultivate empathy and fight back against the stigma of mental illness so that everyone – regardless of age, gender or background – is able to receive the treatment they need.
Watching “13 Reasons Why” can be painful, but it’s precisely the emotional intensity and realistic portrayal of traumatic events that makes the show worth the watch for those who aren’t so close to the subject matter. It’s certainly no easy feat to construct a series that comprehensively addresses the intersection of mental health, sexism and youth culture, and that simultaneously entertains and educates its audience. “13 Reasons Why” succeeds in telling a realistic story in a way that encourages the audience to play their part and challenge the beliefs, institutions and norms by learning the signs of depression, recognizing the impact of social pressures and holding oneself accountable for mistakes regardless of intention. At the very least, the series serves as a reminder that it’s impossible to know what another person is going through and that there is always room for more compassion.
Despite its powerful message, “13 Reasons Why” isn’t for everyone. The show is, in the end, a reminder that suicide is preventable — but it requires attention and treatment. In order to make a change to the way we as a society approach issues such as mental health and sexual assault, ongoing dialogue and willingness to take action are essential. If you’re struggling with depression or feelings of worthlessness or if you’re easily triggered by themes of sexual assault or suicide, reconsider watching “13 Reasons Why” and remember there is always hope — even when everything and everyone seems to be saying otherwise.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Photo via “13 Reasons Why” Facebook page.