Let’s talk about 13 Reasons Why

Let’s talk about 13 Reasons Why.

I mean, there’s a good chance you already are. It became one of Netflix’s most popular original series shortly after its debut on March 31, but soon also became its most polarising. Supporters of the show say it starts important conversations about difficult topics including suicide and bullying. Those against the show say it does this in a dangerous and/or inaccurate way.

Spoilers ahead.

What is 13 Reasons Why?

Clay gets Hannah's tapes
Clay gets Hannah’s tapes. (Anonymous Content/Paramount Television/Netflix).
The basic premise of 13 Reasons Why is this: Hannah Baker has taken her own life, but before she did, she recorded 13 tapes detailing the 13 reasons why she killed herself. Each of these tapes is addressed to a person at her school. Hannah intended for the tapes to be passed along, in order, to each of these people. As we watch the series, the tapes are in the hands of fellow student Clay Jensen.

The show is based on Jay Asher’s debut novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which was released in 2007 and already had a cult following. However, the series differs from the book in a number of ways, including the characters’ back stories and the method by which Hannah ends her life. (It’s far more graphic in the series.)

Is 13 Reasons Why dangerous?

Many experts, including Australian youth mental health organisation headspace, have issued warnings about 13 Reasons Why amid reports that counselling services have received a spate of calls directly related to the show.

Here are some of the arguments as to why the show is potentially harmful:

  • It graphically depicts suicide and rape, possibly leading to suicide contagion.
  • It romanticises suicide and presents the idea of suicide as a revenge tactic.
  • It places the blame for Hannah’s suicide on others, and does not specifically address Hannah’s mental health.
  • It discourages viewers from seeking help; the only time Hannah reaches out to someone is when she goes to the school counsellor, Mr Porter, who is unable to do anything because she sets him up to fail.
  • It does not tell viewers where they can get help if they are triggered by its content.

Kati Morton, a therapist and YouTuber, details her concerns about 13 Reasons Why in this video:

My personal thoughts on 13 Reasons Why

I liked 13 Reasons Why for the most part, but one of my friends felt it was a horrific representation. Both of us have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts. The first time I wanted to die was when I was about Hannah’s age, but as my friend and I demonstrate, I cannot claim to be able to speak for anyone else who has gone through it.

I’m wary of the fans who are borderline evangelical about the show and think everyone needs to watch it. Even though I was hooked on the series, it did bring up some unpleasant memories for me. At one point I was curled up on my bed and needed a good cry and some sleep before I could watch the rest. But teenage me also felt understood, and adult me found that comforting.

I didn’t feel like it romanticised suicide — seeing the brutal way in which Hannah ends her life and how it impacted on her parents did the opposite for me, which I believe was one of the reasons why the show changed the way she died. I also didn’t think Hannah killed herself just to get back at everyone; rather, she felt hopeless, like she couldn’t do anything right and had not one friend left in the world. And frankly, I could relate to her.

Maybe it’s over-simplistic to say that what the subjects of Hannah’s tapes did or didn’t do caused her to come to the conclusion that she had to die. Just like it’s over-simplistic to say that X, Y and Z made me suicidal. But there were things that happened to me, that piled up until life became overwhelming and seemingly unbearable. And like Hannah, I felt completely alone. So while saying “these people killed Hannah” might be an oversimplification, to suggest that external influences played no part in how she felt (and how I felt) is also inaccurate. We could all treat each other a little better because you don’t know what someone is going through. Yes, Hannah made her own choice to kill herself, and if I’d done the same it would’ve been my choice, not anyone else’s. But bullies and rapists make a choice too, and sometimes their choices have consequences like what we see in this series.

Things turned out okay for me. I eventually got a diagnosis, some therapy and a prescription. Hannah never did. Maybe she would have if she’d talked to her parents or a professional, but we’ll never know. I do think avenues for help could have been made more obvious within the show, in the same way that news stories in Australia include numbers for relevant organisations, such as Lifeline. Perhaps they could’ve inserted a news ticker at the bottom of the screen, for instance. The 13reasonswhy.info website provides crisis lines for different countries, but you kind of have to go looking for it.

I believe 13 Reasons Why does have value, but there’s no such thing as a show for everyone, and some people are safer avoiding it.

Have you seen 13 Reasons Why? What do you think of it?

UPDATE: Netflix has since announced that they’ll be adding extra trigger warnings and have “strengthened the messaging and resource language” for the most graphic episodes.

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