May is Mental Health Awareness Month and here at 25YL, we want to highlight some of the television shows and characters that spoke to us directly about this sensitive subject. This week, Bryan O’Donnell takes a critical look at 13 Reasons Why and how it handles the topic of suicide.
I have shed my fair share of tears while watching TV shows. Rectify and Six Feet Under quickly come to mind. But when I watched Season 1 of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why about a year ago, it not only made me cry but it left me feeling down for a long time after I finished. In fact, it left such a cloud over me that I have been unable to bring myself to watch the second season.
Part teen drama, part mystery, the first season of 13 Reasons Why tells the story of the aftermath of high-school student Hannah Baker’s suicide. Before she died, Hannah outlined the reasons for her death on a series of cassette tape recordings.
At the beginning of the first tape, Hannah says, “If you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why” she died. She then goes over the “rules” that become the storytelling device of the show. The first rule is to listen to the tapes (obviously). The second rule is to pass along the tapes to the next person. The tapes were even accompanied by a map, so she clearly put a lot into this plan. Hannah also discloses that she made a copy of the tapes and left them with someone she trusts, and if anyone disposed of the tapes, this person would release them to the public.
Season 1 begins with Hannah’s classmate Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) finding the tapes on his porch one day after school. Flashbacks showing Clay and Hannah tell us he clearly cared for her. But Clay can’t imagine why he would be on the tapes.
Each side of the tapes—one per episode—is dedicated to a particular person. As the season progresses, Clay (and the audience) learns about various hurtful events in Hannah’s life. These events involve bullying, sexual assault, and other elements that affect Hannah’s mental health. In one event, a classmate sends a photo to the entire school that shows a view up Hannah’s skirt. In another, Hannah witnesses one of her friends being raped while she was hiding in the same room. And then the moment that finally breaks her soul: Hannah herself is raped by entitled piece of garbage Bryce Walker.
All of these events leave Hannah feeling alone, broken, embarrassed, and depressed. And they culminate in the unfortunate outcome of her taking her own life—something that is shown very vividly in the final episode of Season 1.
As a whole, I enjoyed 13 Reasons Why. The way information is revealed is entertaining and keeps you guessing. It features a number of interesting characters, with Katherine Langford doing an excellent job playing Hannah Baker. The show also produced vibes that reminded me a bit of Donnie Darko (one of my favorite films), with the use of ’80s music and a lot of hooded-sweatshirt bike riding by Clay.
I still enjoyed the show despite it requiring a bit of suspension of disbelief. For example, it’s hard to understand why Clay doesn’t blow through all of the tapes immediately. The structure of the show wouldn’t really work if he had done that, I suppose. At least some of the characters channel the audience’s questions when they jokingly ask Clay why he is taking so long to finish the tapes.
But, as I noted, this show hit me hard. The subject matter is heavy, the ending is devastating, and I felt the weight for weeks after finishing. I personally have struggled with anxiety and depression for many years (typically more on the anxiety side, but these two things can be so closely related). And while I’m sure there were other life factors going on at the time, the two- to three-week period after I watched 13 Reasons Why was one of the lowest of my life.
A show centered around suicide is expected to be somewhat of a downer, but I think what got to me the most was the show creators’ choice to show Hannah committing suicide in such a graphic way. They show her climb into the bathtub at home, slit her wrists, gasp for breath, and bleed out. It’s one thing to be told someone cut their wrists; it’s another to watch it.
And then the devastation in the following scene in which Hannah’s parents (portrayed brilliantly by Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James) find her in the tub—it’s absolutely heartbreaking. These two scenes affected me so much that it’s hard for me to even write about them.
Does 13 Reasons Why Get It Right?
Because of the subject matter of 13 Reasons Why, Netflix includes a 45-second intro piece before the opening episode that features actors from the show explaining to viewers that they can reach out to a friend, counselor, or trusted adult if they’re struggling. It warns that this show may not be for everyone and it provides a website (13ReasonsWhy.Info) that contains resources.
As the video states, this show can be a conversation starter: “The minute you start talking about it, it gets easier.”
I do applaud 13 Reasons Why for tackling some of the subject matter in the show, such as sexual assault, substance abuse, and suicide. But could it have been handled better? And did it, in some cases, have a seriously negative impact on people’s lives?
In an article for SELF, seven mental health professionals broke down four problem areas in 13 Reasons Why:
- Hannah’s plan with the tapes was conflated with a revenge fantasy, which could present a dangerous message to impressionable viewers.
- The show didn’t make enough of an attempt to educate viewers about risk factors of suicide or strategies to help prevent suicide.
- The show didn’t encourage people with suicidal thoughts to reach out for help. In fact, Hannah’s final act before committing suicide is to reach out to a school counselor, who botches his response and leads Hannah to think she had exhausted all options.
- The scene depicting Hannah’s suicide went against recommendations for covering suicide in the media and could lead to other people committing suicide.
I have already discussed how the scene with Hannah’s suicide made me feel. I can only imagine how it could affect people who are more impressionable or already in a very dark place before watching that scene. A study published online in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that “the overall suicide rate among 10- to 17-year-olds increased significantly in the month immediately following the release of 13 Reasons Why.”
The show definitely could have existed without the suicide scene. I’m not sure it would have been as powerful or memorable for me, but I wonder if it would have been better off to handle it a different way.
The point about the school counselor resonates with me as well. I found this to be one of the most tragic aspects of 13 Reasons Why Season 1. It’s very disturbing to watch someone go to a counselor and hint very strongly about having suicidal thoughts, and then admit she was sexually assaulted, only for the counselor to appear not to believe her at first, and then be too distracted by his buzzing cell phone to take proper action.
I’m a big proponent of therapy and talking about things that cause anxiety as a means of coping. I consider my choice to start seeing a therapist as one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. It has made such a huge difference in my battle with anxiety. So I didn’t like to see the school counselor’s reaction in 13 Reasons Why. People need to be encouraged to seek help if they are struggling. But if they think they will just end up receiving bad advice or improper attention, that will only discourage them from reaching out for aid.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to watching future seasons of 13 Reasons Why. I applaud the show’s ambitions for bringing to light some difficult subjects. I’m just not quite sure it executed things as well as it could have.