By Luna Greenstein
Most likely by now you’ve heard about the controversial Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” The show is about Hannah Baker, a high school student who takes her own life and then explains what she sees as the 13 “reasons” that led to her decision. Her reasons are described in a box of cassette tapes she leaves behind for the people she says contributed to her death. In these tapes, she explains her perception of how these individuals wronged her and instructs them to pass the tapes on to the next person.
The show’s premise alone stirs up a lot of concern for people in the mental health community because this show is a suicide revenge fantasy. Through these tapes, Hannah receives all the support and love she needed in life after her death. It is a dangerous perspective for everyone, but especially young adults—the series’ target audience—most of whom don’t realize the finality of death. They may not understand that Hannah is not actually receiving this support, it just seems that way—through the magic of television. But for Hannah, it is too late.
Television’s power shouldn’t be underestimated, especially as it pertains to suicide. This is not to say that the topic of suicide should be avoided, but it must be handled carefully. Research has extensively shown that the way media covers suicide can lead to greater suicide risk. That’s why ReportingOnSuicide.org provides a specific set of guidelines to avoid media-prompted suicides from happening. 13 Reasons Why violated these guidelines by graphically depicting Hannah taking her life.
Additionally, as we learn the backstory of why this young adult ended her life, mental health and mental illness aren’t discussed at all. This is major failure of the show as 90% of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness and suicide is very often preventable if a person receives the appropriate care. But mental health resources are mentioned only in passing after Hannah’s death. There is not a dedicated scene about finding or providing resources for struggling teenagers. The guidance counselor Hannah reaches out to for help fails to introduce her to any mental health resources or even contact her parents.
The creators of this show stand firm that they were attempting to start the conversation on the important topics of bullying, sexual assault and suicide. In fact, Selena Gomez (executive producer of 13 Reasons Why) recently commented that backlash was “going to come no matter what” because suicide is not “an easy subject to talk about,” but overall, she feels “very proud” of the show.
While the show has started many conversations about suicide, whether those conversations are harmful or helpful is debatable. What is helpful, however, are all the resources that have become more visible in response to the show—that is perhaps the series' only true benefit. NAMI encourages anyone who may be struggling after watching to seek help. Here are a few resources to consider:
If you’re wondering why so many organizations and individuals felt the need to address the issues presented in 13 Reasons Why, it’s because suicide is the second leading cause of death for the primary demographic watching the show—people between the ages of 15 and 24. And females aged 10-14 (likely the age of Hannah Baker) actually had a tripling of their suicide rate from 1999 to 2014.
This topic should not be taken lightly or exploited for entertainment purposes. We all need to be aware of how suicide can and should be talked about in a way that doesn’t raise anyone’s risk for increasing that already too-high statistic.
NAMI recommends caution in deciding whether to watch the show. It has the equivalent of an R-rating. It is best watched with other family members or friends. We recommend talking points developed by the Jed Foundation for use in making the decision and focusing conversations.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
Laura Greenstein is communications coordinator at NAMI.
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