A Defense of the Graphic Scenes in '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.

There has been a lot of controversy around the Netflix version of Jay Asher’s book, “Thirteen Reasons Why.” I can see why mental health counselors, advocates and those who have mental illness are outraged by the graphic way suicide, sexual assault, bullying, mental illness, self-harm and counseling are depicted in the show. The explicit way the show portrays some serious issues could be severe triggers and can put vulnerable people at risk. Those people deserve to feel safe when they participate in aspects of pop culture. People with mental health struggles often isolate, and they should not have to feel excluded because they chose to protect their mental health and avoid the series. As someone who works in the mental health field, I would not recommend the series to my clients. However, my work has also shown me that sadly, each of the experiences portrayed in the show have been lived by many other people. Regrettably, the controversial scenes in the show are probably a reality for someone you know.

Eight years ago, I voluntarily hospitalized myself for a month after becoming suicidal. I was the same age as Hannah, except when I sought help, I was met by amazing mental health workers who weren’t burnt out and did not shy away from the difficult questions (I still spend seasons in counseling and I continue to use medication —both of which are life-preservers for me). In certain depths of that darkness, I think there’s a possibility the show could have done some damage to my well-being. However, I am the kind of person that has generally benefited from graphic depictions of the darkness I struggle with. There is a part of me that really does believe that seeing the negative effects of risky behaviors played out in film, art, music or writing, played some role in my ability to not engage in those behaviors. They can serve as a reality check and have helped me snap out of my thoughts and urges when I am reminded of what those actions look like in reality. I feel like that light has been left out of this conversation.

In addition to being someone who has been both a patient and a professional in the mental health field, I have always somewhat identified as an artist. During the darkest times, my art can be unsettling, but it is important for me to express myself honestly. I believe that honest art can heal because that has been true in my life. I found comfort in the connection I felt to the art that dared to show me pieces of my story in ways I had never been able to see before. The show, “13 Reasons Why,” is far from the first representation of mental health issues in pop culture. I devoured Bukowski, Jerry Stahl, Sylvia Plath, Joy Division, Nirvana, Elliott Smith, Daniel Johnston, Basquiat, Jackson Pollock, “Intervention,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Mysterious Skin,” “Girl, Interrupted” and every “emo” song from the early/mid 2000’s (to name a few). Each of them helped me learn about the harder aspects of my life. I specifically sought that art because of the way it discussed the heavy things. Their lack of censorship let me know I was not alone, and clearly displayed the consequences of acting on some of the impulses I had without romanticizing them in the same way my mind did. When I come across someone who has not personally experienced mental health issues but wants to learn about that world, these are the resources I point them to. In my experience, explicit content is an effective way to offer perspective to those who do not understand the intricacies of mental health issues. I was fully informed about what I was going to view and was able to make an appropriate choice for myself because I knew that, for me personally, these intense depictions helped me move through the difficult moments. There are others who react and relate in this same strange way — but the same horrifying honesty can hold hope and hurt at the same time. I can see that there are people in places where this content can do harm.

Unfortunately, this is more than just Hannah’s truth. If you feel this is your reality you have to know there people out there that will help you. However, there is a small possibility that the first professional you reach may not meet your needs. If you find yourself in this place, know that professionals need help too. There will be other times when (for reasons beyond anyone’s control) the therapeutic chemistry just won’t exist between you and a certain professional. The process can be frustrating, limiting and overwhelming, but please know that the right professional for you does exist. We are all unique puzzle pieces: some of us fit perfectly together, some are questionable, and some don’t fit at all. The first piece you try isn’t always the one that fits your story, but that seamless fit is out there. Ultimately, it takes all of the pieces to complete the big picture. We are all in this together. Advocates, professionals, clients, families, friends, volunteers, artists… we are all working toward the same goal, but everyone takes a unique path. The routes may not align, but they all arrive at the same destination. The strength of the mental health community comes from a connection between our commonalities, not a focus on our differences. Our voices are distinct but we are all carrying the same message. We are better in chorus than in chaos.

As an artist, my creativity fears censorship. As a person who tends to live in the grey areas, I think there can be some value in controversial art as long as the viewer is capable of making an informed and appropriate decision for themselves. As a professional, I’m aware of the weight of the negative consequences that can result from this and I don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way. As someone living with depression, part of my health comes from being able to find the light, however dim it may be, in the darkness. The light here, if nothing else, lies in the fact that the discussion has been sparked regarding mental illness, suicide, effective interventions, self-harm, survivor’s guilt, bullying, violence, sexual assault/rape, “slut shaming,” substance use, and professional burnout/compassion fatigue. There is an ugly bias towards these issues, but the truth is these struggles exist. Ignoring the stigma won’t make it fade away. As controversial as some of the character’s reactions were to the tough topics, they are all realistic responses that occur worldwide on a daily basis; and have likely written themselves into the life of someone you know. Discussing these issues helps spread the light in the darkness. We cannot change a dialogue we haven’t created.

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

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