Above: Recently released on Netflix, “13 Reasons Why” has drawn criticism for its portrayal of mental health issues as they affect teens.
By Aaliyah Jensen
Editor’s Note: According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24. Youth reporter shares her reaction to the hit Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, which has been the subject of criticism from mental health experts, school counselors, parents and young people for its depiction of teen suicide.
The new show “13 Reasons Why’ was originally a young-adult book written by Jay Asher. Overnight, it became a worldwide sensation and I do not understand why.
The show, co-produced by pop star Selena Gomez, is centered around 12 high school students who receive cassette tapes from one of their peers, Hannah, who committed suicide. Hannah blames these 12 students for her suicide and as a form of revenge leaves behind a tape for each one of them, laying out how they each contributed to her death. On the tapes she recalls disturbing events of rape, sexual harassment and bullying.
As an advocate of mental health care, I was appalled when I watched the series. I believe it is an injudicious glamorization of teen suicide and mental health issues, and sends harmful and inaccurate messages to viewers. Below are five reasons why this show fails young people:
- Instead of looking into the reality of mental illness, the show focuses the drama on the guilt-tripping of Hannah’s peers. The show fails to show the difficult aspects of Hannah’s depression, a real mental illness, or offer any facts about the prevalence of mental illness among young people or how to get help. The show is only intriguing because it is exploiting the mystery that hides behind Hannah’s death and the ‘13 Reasons Why’ she killed herself.
- The graphic images of suicide in the show can lead to ‘copycat’ suicides. Since the show is such a hit, cases of copycat suicides are possible due to the explicit images of the show’s protagonist committing suicide. In fact, several parents of young people who are at risk for suicide have spoken out that they are alarmed by the message the show sends.
- The show portrays Hannah as directing blame for her suicide to other young high-school students, which actually leads to their untreated depression and other mental issues. Clay Jensen, one of the high school students who receives the tapes, begins experiencing hallucinations after listening to only a few of them. Alex Standall, another one of the students, attempts to shoot himself in the head at the end of the show due to guilt. As if one suicide scene was not enough, the show also portrays guns, which are easily accessible, as a form of committing suicide.
- The show portrays suicide as a mechanism to gain power. We see throughout the series, Hannah states that she feels invincible. She goes from being bullied to being feared after her death. Many of the show’s characters become scared of Hannah even though she is no longer alive. She is given the opportunity to tell her story after she dies, something that is possible only in Hollywood, not in reality. Power does not come along with suicide and that is a dangerous message that should not be broadcast out to young viewers who may not be able to separate fact from fiction.
- This show gives viewers the idea that when someone commits suicide there is always liability or someone else to blame. Although there is no liability, the adults in the show also did nothing to help Hannah. Hannah thought suicide was the only option left after a failed attempt to get one last person, the school counselor, to help her. This sends out the message that going to an adult is pointless.
This show does have some good aspects to it, such as being culturally diverse and not following the traditional stereotypes attached to people of color. But it also condones rape culture and glorifies suicide. This is inexcusable for a show aimed at young audiences.
‘13 Reasons Why’ is a failed attempt at explaining suicide and depression to a young audience. Maybe the producers, as they’ve said in response to criticism, were really trying to help drive a national conversation about the issue. But suicide is not something that should be sensationalized for the sake of entertainment, and that’s exactly what the show does.
If you are contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255 or suicide.org. If you have been sexually assaulted or raped call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1-800-656-4673 or 911.