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6 Reasons I'm Not a Fan of '13 Reasons Why'

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The mini series version of Jay Asher’s book, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” has come out on Netflix (“13 Reasons Why”). It has been long anticipated, as the best selling young adult novel has been a favorite among many since 2007. However, the story has never sat quite right with me.

For background, I am someone living with mental illness and am a suicide attempt survivor. Today, I am a mental health advocate and future clinician. I read “Thirteen Reasons Why” when I was around 14 years old, in the beginning of my worsening depression and suicidal thoughts. I didn’t really like it then or now.

I recognize this story is one that resonates with some or has provided comfort or solace. I know many people watching the show really enjoy it and are encouraging others to watch and read it as well. While I don’t want to discourage others from finding things that help them, I do want to shed light on the issues it contains.

1. It simplifies suicide and perpetuates the idea suicide has someone to blame.

We are all affected by what we do and what happens to us. And sometimes, what happens to us is unfair, hurtful or even severely traumatizing. I am not saying these things don’t matter, because they do. When faced with the things addressed in “13 Reasons Why” such as bullying, rumors and sexual assault, it absolutely affect our mental health. But to perpetuate the idea there is a straight, linear path to why a suicide happened by pointing fingers at peers, parents or another individual, is harmful. Suicide is a complex issue and it cannot be defined by placing the onus on someone else. Sometimes, suicide has no reason other than intense depression or another mental illness such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder or bipolar disorder. It is upsetting to see a suicide portrayed as the suicidal person wanting others to feel guilty, rather than focusing on the person’s emotions and thoughts.

2. It adds fuel to the fire of suicide myths, like “suicide is selfish.”

People who believe harmful myths about suicide can look to this movie and story to “prove” their point. The fact that Hannah, the girl who dies by suicide in the story, sends pre-recorded tapes detailing the reasons (both events and people’s actions) that led to her suicide is uncomfortable. And it should be. The moral of the story is we need to recognize how we treat people affects them in ways we don’t even know. That is true. But what is most uncomfortable is Hannah’s suicide is seen as a way to expose what people have done to her. It makes it seem as though she is a hero for calling out the harmful things that have been done to her. And while it is brave to confront bullying and stand up after an assault, it is harmful to be done posthumously, implying suicide was the only way to make her voice heard.

3. It devalues both suicide and bullying experiences.

We see over and over again the stories about bullying that lead to suicide, but how accurate is this? And what message does it send? Experiencing bullying is traumatic and each individual copes in their own way. As mental health advocate and speaker Aliçia Raimundo says, “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. And many recent youth suicides have been met with advocating for anti-bullying campaigns, which reduces and simplifies suicide. It also continues the idea that the normal outcome for bullying is suicide — which is simply not true. This isn’t to say bullying does not affect mental health or does not have an influence on someone becoming suicidal. It is saying that bullying is a risk factor, but a risk factor is not a cause.

4. It disregards the guidelines on safe and responsible reporting on suicide.

We know Hannah dies by suicide. It is the premise of the story and revealed at the beginning, as the rest of the show depends on it. The show could have been effective and impactful without the graphic, detailed portrayal of Hannah’s suicide, which is a direct violation of research conducted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other suicide prevention organizations, when they found “risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.”

5. It doesn’t address mental illness in adolescence.

Not all who die by suicide have mental illness, but a mental disorder and/or substance abuse is found in 90% of suicide deaths. And when it comes to adolescents, one in five have (or will have) a serious mental illness. With those statistics in mind, it’s no wonder suicide is the third leading cause of death among those 10 to 14 and the second among those 15 to 34 years old. Clearly, these are important issues and ones that need to be addressed. “13 Reasons Why” is one of the first and most popular mainstream media portrayals of suicide in adolescence and it doesn’t talk about mental illness at all. It is missing a crucial opportunity to discuss an issue affecting the lives of so many children and teenagers.

6. There is no example of successful help-seeking.

A theme throughout the story is silence. None of the teenagers talk to their parents, faculty, staff or anyone but each other about their feelings. As Hannah was contemplating suicide and preparing the tapes, she gave “one try” to ask for help. Having Hannah go to the counselor and him failing to grasp her mental state and fail to help her, is sending a message that help is unattainable. That there is such a thing as “too late” to be helped. After her suicide, her peers also don’t receive help. Several characters have an extremely hard time coping with the tapes, but when parents ask, the students deny it. I understand teenagers can be brooding and moody, we get that. What would be helpful to teenagers today is to show how to ask for help, how treatment and counseling is available — not that everyone just accepts “I’m fine” at face value and that’s the end of the conversation. I wish even one character had someone intervene to shine some light, to be an image of hope, that could help the narrative from being one of desperation and silence to one that encourages conversation and help-seeking. There needs to be an example of what to do, not just what not to do. When we present a failing system without the avenue for change, it does not help to prevent the very thing the show is about.

This is not to say the show and book are all bad. They get some things right, too. In particular, tackling rape culture and slut shaming was dealt with accurately. The scenes dealing with the assaults can be triggering, but it is not shown in the same graphic nature as Hannah’s suicide. The story acts as a warning and that moral of treating people well and being aware of how our words and actions affect others is a good one, I just think it gets muddled and lost at times. It’s stories like these that remind me of the work that needs to be done in the media to involve advocates, clinicians and people with lived experience to make sure we are presenting stories that need to be told in the most responsible and effective ways possible, along with representation of how to get help.

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.

Originally published: April 4, 2017
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