I watched 13 Reasons Why long after it first aired and because of that I already had some idea that there were some mistakes and missteps that had been made during the creation of the series. I was not expecting the mistakes to be so great, nor was I expecting to be as affected by it as I was. I actually had to stop watching it halfway through and completely reframe and reevaluate how I was watching it because I found myself falling down a dangerous line of thinking that I hadn’t encountered to the same extent for some time, as someone who struggles with suicide. When I first heard about the series I was excited, but skeptical because I know that we still do not know how to address suicide and, on a broader scale, mental health in a way that is more helpful than detrimental, if it is addressed at all. If created responsibly, this show could have been so helpful to people either struggling with suicide or attempting to talk about it and help those who are. Unfortunately, this show was not created responsibly.
While I believe it is extremely important to be able to address depression, suicide, and other such mental health issues in various forms of media, I believe it is equally important to be responsible and cognisant of the effects addressing these issues could have on people who are in direct danger due to their mental health. Research has been done by psychologists and other mental health professionals so that things like the Werther effect (the term used to describe copycat suicides in relation to suicides portrayed in media) can be mitigated as much as possible. There is always more work to be done but ignoring the guidelines that exist will only serve to harm the audiences you may want to help. I never want to discourage a creator from attempting to address the issues of mental health, I only wish to encourage everyone to be cautious and aware of the steps that should be taken to do no harm to the people who consume what you have created.
There is a document that was released by the World Health Organization’s Department of Mental Health that details basic dos and don’ts in regard to reporting a suicide in media such as newspapers or television news in order to best prevent additional harm such as copycat or additional suicides. I think this can also be applied to series such as this. This is a relatively in depth document and I will link it at the end of this post so you can read it if you wish. For the purposes of this blog I am going to use the list of specific don’ts that is summarized at the end of the document as a kind of jumping off point for discussing some of the problems I noticed in the series.There are six items on the don’ts list in the World Health Organization document and five of them definitely apply to this series. The sixth is something that I think could apply to the series but it’s not something I want to address at this time so I won’t include it. I did not come up with this list, I am simply applying it to this show.
The very first item on the list states that photographs and suicide notes should not be published when reporting on a suicide. With the series premise being that of going through the tapes that Hannah (the young woman who died by suicide in the show) left behind in great detail, we’ve already entered swampy territory. Hannah’s voice-over takes us through the events and situations that happened before the start of the series and how she thinks these things affected her decision to attempt and complete her suicide. There are two more points on the don’ts list that I am going to include here because they work together to help us see why the very basis of the series was a misstep made by the creators. Don’t give simplistic reasons, and don’t apportion blame. If you haven’t seen the series, the title of the show might give you a hint why the first of those two is applicable. The second is applicable because the reasons Hannah gives are directly related to specific people in her life who did or didn’t do something that she perceived as having influenced her decision. The problem here doesn’t come with demonstrating that people’s actions can have a real and direct effect on someone’s mental state, but in how the show failed to convince the viewer (or at least me) that her actions weren’t actually the fault of these kids. The fact is that while suicide is preventable, and depression is treatable, if someone completes a suicide it is not anyone person or group of people’s fault. By the end of the season, the characters and the viewer are left feeling so guilty and overwhelmed by the thought that their actions directly caused her suicide, and there is not a single character who was able to step in and effectively address these kids to convince them otherwise. If the series did anything well it’s demonstrate just how inept our culture is at addressing suicide both in prevention and aftermath. And this is largely due to the fact that they themselves are so inept at addressing suicide.
The last two items on the list that I’m going to address work very closely with each other in respect to this series: Don’t give specific details of the method used. And don’t glorify or sensationalize suicide. From what I gathered reading articles about the production of the series and listening to interviews of people involved, “don’t glorify suicide by showing it,” is probably the thing that they were told the most when embarking on this endeavor. It is also the thing that they appear to have most heavily ignored. The interviews, which can be found in a separate episode at the end of season one, are essentially saying “yes, we were told not to show the suicide in its entirety but we really just wanted to show how painful it was and how alone she felt and we think that’s an important thing to demonstrate so your studies and research don’t matter we’re going to do it anyway.” If you’ve struggled with suicide you know that the pain and the loneliness are already present. That’s why you’re in the situation you’re in. These people thought they knew better than years of research and studies. They were wrong. Before I get into this I want to say that I will be breaking down the scene in the series where they show Hannah’s suicide. It will be graphic and uncomfortable and potentially triggering. If you want to skip ahead that’s completely fine I will just say that the details they presented were brutal and that they absolutely did glorify suicide. I will also say that I’m working from memory here. There is nothing on this earth that would make me watch any part of this series a second time.
The scene starts with Hannah entering her bathroom with a package of razor blades and turning on the water in her bathtub. She lets the tub fill, slowly submerges her body in the water, pulls her sleeves up and takes a blade to her first forearm. This is obviously painful and she gasps and cries out accordingly. She then transfers the blade to her other hand and makes the same, long, cut up her other arm. Her arms sink below the surface of the water and she cries as her blood drains into the reddening water of the still filling tub and she slowly dies. Now let’s break this down a little more closely. Hannah herself is an important factor in this. Believe me when I tell you I hate that I have to think about this but the actress that plays Hannah is gorgeous. Dead or alive, that fact will remain. Water was also a significant choice. There’s a peaceful quality that comes with water that is unavoidable. And not only do you have the peaceful qualities of water but the decision was made to leave the water running. So, to re-describe the scene, a beautiful woman submerges herself in a tub of water and cries herself to sleep while an ever darkening cascade of red flows over the sides of the tub and onto the white bathroom floor until it runs out the door. The scene is absolutely horrific and extremely uncomfortable to watch. But it is also one of the most beautiful death scenes I have ever witnessed. That is what glorifying suicide looks like. To be completely honest there is no actress or setting or method that could have been portrayed that would ever make suicide look unappealing to someone contemplating an attempt. Suicide is the escape from a seemingly overwhelming and everpresent pain that the physical discomfort of actually attempting suicide would be a small obstacle to overcome in order to not have to feel anymore. That is why a completed suicide should never be shown in its entirety in any kind of media. And just a small note before I move on, the second potential suicide that I mentioned earlier was done with a gun by a boy and they did not show a second of it. Not only does that sensationalize the act that we are meant to believe has happened (so they can get people to watch the second season), but it tells me that the people involved knew exactly what they were doing by drawing Hannah’s suicide out and presenting it in the way that they did.
At this point I’m going to diverge from the list and briefly touch on some things I noticed that really made me upset watching the series, the first of which is the character of Hannah herself. And what follows is going to sound absolutely awful. Hannah is not a likeable character. She is manipulative, she is a bully, and so many of the decisions she makes are completely unbelievable. I understand to some extent the complexities of mental health and the reasons some of the things she does might have happened but even with that knowledge she was an unreasonably unbelievable character. The series wasn’t exactly geared toward people like me, however. The series was marketed as something that could help spark discussions about mental health and suicide with people who weren’t already talking about them. If you want the response to a series in which the protagonist dies by suicide to be a greater number of people trying to have effective and understanding conversations about suicide, you can’t make your audience kind of want your protagonist to die. Obviously a lot of terrible things happen to Hannah throughout the series, but many of the situations she finds herself in were exacerbated by intentionally manipulative or antagonistic actions on her part. Even the tapes themselves are a form of manipulation from her. She forces her friends to blame themselves and prevents them from being able to or wanting to seek help from anyone because the tapes are such a secret thing. As a friend of mine pointed out while discussing the show recently, “it’s as if it was a game to her.” I am not in any way saying that she asked for or deserved anything that happened to her, and I wouldn’t be exploring this line of thinking at all if this weren’t a television series that was meant to be helpful to people struggling with mental health issues and the people around them. I am simply trying to respond to the character that was presented.
One of the most frustrating and disturbing observations I made watching the series was that there was not a sufficient amount real life resources provided to people watching the show nor were there any real resources provided to the characters in the show. When I initially wrote this paragraph I stated that there was no information given about the nature of the series or about resources that may be available to those watching. I was incorrectly remembering this. At the time I watched the series, there was a moment in the credits after each episode where the address to the show’s website appeared which includes a number of resources for people viewing the show. The very fact that I did not remember this happening is an indication that this was not enough of an effort to make any significant impact. Also, at no point did anyone in the series seek out or receive any help from a mental health professional or hotline or anything like that aside from when Hannah goes to talk to the school counselor to give someone “one last chance” to help her. Which she goes in expecting him to fail to do anyway. The show has created a world where everyone is so unable to talk about preventing suicide or talk to people who are grieving in response to a suicide that it provides no hope for any real world success in doing those things either. There are literally text hotlines you can reach out to now but there was not even a blip of a resource in the entire series. I understand that this series was based on a book and that they were probably attempting to stay faithful to the source material to some extent. But if they truly were trying to help people with mental illness and those around them they could have easily altered just a few parts of the series to show Hannah trying to get help. Since my viewing of the series, a short clip has been added in which the actors from the show talk directly to the viewer about how the show deals with these difficult topics and that it might be triggering and that there are ways to reach out if you are struggling. This clip only appears before the first episode (instead of before every episode, as I think it should) and will also appear before the first episode of the second season. I do appreciate that this has been added but, in my opinion, it is far too little, and far too late.
To finish things off I’m going to go through the few things I thought the series did well. I think it demonstrated extremely well the extent to which we as a society do not understand mental health still and how completely inept most people are at discussing and preventing suicide, and I think it can serve as a model to be better than and as a learning tool for people in the film and television industries.
There is so much I haven’t said about this series that should be addressed and that I want to address. Perhaps I will revisit this at some point in the future and discuss other specifics, both good and bad, throughout the series. But for now I will conclude with this. In recent years, suicide has become more and more a topic of discussion in mainstream media sources not in small part due to the seemingly overwhelming number of celebrities who it has been revealed have died by suicide. Robin Williams and Chester Bennington were the two that affected me most significantly. They were reminders to me that even if you try to do everything right and you are getting help and taking medication and making all the steps toward recovery that you possibly can, it might not work. Depression is a disease. It’s a disease we can try to treat but it’s not something we know how to cure. The treatments don’t always work. And people who need them don’t always get them in time. A lot of the reasons behind why treatments don’t work and why people aren’t able to get them and why we still don’t understand why people feel the way they do sometimes stem from the stigma that is attached to talking about mental health. I was hoping that 13 Reasons Why could open some avenues to people who weren’t able to put words to how they felt or who saw their friends struggling or who didn’t know who to talk to but instead it reinforced many of the worst ways we see mental health and suicide and those who struggle to keep themselves alive in a world that’s barely been able to make a life vest much less get it to the person who’s drowning or pull them to shore. We deserve better. We can do better. And I hope, if nothing else, this series inspires creators to be better.
I will not be watching season two of 13 Reasons Why and I definitely do not recommend anyone watch the series at all. If you are interested in shows that I feel portray mental health in a better, more responsible, and even helpful way, I would recommend watching both Bojack Horseman and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I think I will write some about these series in the future as well so look out for those posts!
It has come to my attention that the resource I was referencing apparently no longer exists in the exact format I was using. I’ll link the updated version because I think it’s still an important resource but if you want the version I was looking at leave a comment and I’ll try to find a way to get it to you.
This is a video by Kati Morton, a mental health professional I follow on YouTube who addresses some of the things I talked about in a more professional and detailed capacity:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
Thanks to everyone who helped me edit and write this post including my mom, grandma, and my friends Katie and Brandon!