*There are some spoilers within*
I love a gripping Netflix series just as much as the next procrastinating student, so was really keen to watch 13 Reasons Why. Admittedly, what finally motivated me to watch it was the endless criticism I’d read about the show, so that I could see whether it was warranted or not. Up until I watched the final episode I thought the negativity was exaggerated and totally unjustified. I thought the show perfectly defied the usual stereotypical high school characters well, with a lesbian asian girl with homosexual parents, a rich white guy who’s a rapist, a black student president and an asian male being a star basketball player. Whether you want to admit it or not, unlike Clay, you probably powered through those episodes watching them back-to-back. Personally I was 100% engrossed and couldn’t wait to find out what each person’s tape was about. However, after watching the final episode, I wanted nothing more than to do everything in my power to stop this show from being viewed by anyone suffering from a mental illness.
Mental health awareness has come so far, especially in recent months with Rio Ferdinand and Royals such as Kate Middleton, Prince Harry and Prince William who have been actively reducing the stigma attached to mental illnesses. I’m not saying everyone who watches the show will be adversely affected by watching 13 Reasons Why. But if you’ve suffer from depression or have suffered from a mental illness in the past, it is likely that this show will, almost definitely, trigger some unpalatable feelings.
The storyline, in a nutshell, is that a girl (Hannah) committed suicide and left some cassette tapes depicting tales about the people she felt were responsible for her decision.
So what’s my issue with the show?
The show is narrated by Hannah after her death and makes it seem like a fun sort of game she is playing, to the point it almost glorifies suicide. The show is basically just a massive guilt trip to the teens Hannah identifies as having driven her to suicide. The purpose of the tapes she left behind was to expose some of their secrets and make them feel responsible for her death. Thus leading the viewer to the conclusion that suicide is the end result of other people’s actions. Although rape, bullying, and loneliness can absolutely play a contributing factor to someone’s suicide, it is probably more likely that it is the sad fate of someone who is unable to cope with a serious mental illness. Was depression even mentioned in this show?
Not everyone experiences the same symptoms of depression, but traits such as isolating oneself from society, putting yourself in dangerous situations, abusing substances and generally a change of personality are often present. These traits were seen in many of the characters, such as Alex, Clay, Jessica and Justin. Yet the show still made no mention of depression. In fact, when they showed Skye’s scars on her wrist (something most people would recognise as a common consequence of someone struggling with depression) the show provided arguably the worst possible suicide prevention advice. If I recall Skye actually said that she had self-harmed because that’s what you should do instead of kill yourself. Who knew there were only these two options, eh! So we’re left with a character who advocates self-harming as an appropriate means to deal with the tough times in your life, and a protagonist who killed herself and selfishly tortured her peers from beyond the grave. If that isn’t two steps backwards in the progress mental health awareness campaigners have made, then what is?
The suicide scene itself was horrifically graphic. While we all love a juicy sex scene on our screens now and again, the same cannot be said for a suicide scene. We were told Hannah slits her wrists to kill herself earlier on in the show, and, I’m sure every viewer could imagine what that entailed. Much to my absolute dismay we actually saw Hannah slice her wrists open with a blade, in what quite conceivably could have been a tutorial on ‘how to kill yourself’. If you’ve ever self-harmed it’s not unrealistic to assume that watching Hannah self-harm triggered some unsettling thoughts about a time you have self-harmed. It likely reminded you of the icy feeling of a blade going across your skin, the tormented feelings running through your mind, and the overpowering smell of the blood making you feel physically sick. That is the feeling you’re left with at the end of the series, in addition to the usual post-TV-series-what-to-watch-next feeling.
In my humble opinion, although the producers did a great job representing the myriad of issues regarding bullying, LGBT rights, and sexual assault, they did a terrible injustice to suicidal teens. I do believe the issues explored in this series should be spoken about between teens themselves and their parents alike. I thought it was incredibly clever in the way it portrayed the characters mentioned in the tapes and how selfish those people were and how that impacted others. However, the show really missed an opportunity to help suicide prevention. The final episode could have been used to show how effective counselling works, how if people at school started being actively kinder to one another there is a really noticeable effect, how doctors can give you all sorts of great advice and/ or medication. Instead, what did we get? One of the aforementioned tortured teens from a tape also attempting suicide because he couldn’t take it anymore!