CW: Discussion of mental illness and suicide, mentions of bullying, rape, sexual assault.
Everyone at my school is discussing Netflix’s new series, based off the book of the same name, 13 Reasons Why. It seems like all I hear is how much people love it, how romantic it is, how beautiful. But no one mentions how it does a great disservice to those suffering with mental illness and suicidal ideation.
When I found out Netflix was creating a series based on the book, I was excited. I wanted 13 Reasons Why to be a poignant and accurate view of suicide. In today’s society, mental illness is surrounded by stigma and misconceptions, and is too often brushed under the rug. I wanted and hoped for Netflix to take this opportunity to spread awareness, to give people greater understanding of those who live with mental illness. They did exactly the opposite, though.
My main criticism is that suicide is romanticized and dramatized, for the pure sake of attracting an audience. Mental illness isn’t pretty. Suicide isn’t pretty. It’s not some trivial teenager drama that should be thrown around. 13 Reasons Why treats suicide as if it’s a beautiful act meant to get revenge. That leaving cassette tapes describing what led to it is artful, will gain you the appreciation of those around you, and is the only way to communicate your pain to others. This portrayal of suicide is extremely harmful. It glorifies and encourages the act. It boils it down to ‘teenager drama’.
The show even goes as far as to show actual rape, suicide, and self-harm on screen. This goes against the advice of many mental health organizations, as well as the guidelines set forth by the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention of how to safely portray suicide.
Another criticism is that the main character who commits suicide, Hannah Baker, is never portrayed as anything more than dramatic, attention-seeking, and self-centered. Her character isn’t developed or explored beyond the fact that she’s the girl who died. This representation, or lack of, increases the stigma and negativity surrounding those who experience suicidal ideation or have attempted suicide.
Additionally, Hannah’s mental health isn’t mentioned once. A person’s mental health plays a major role in their risk for suicide. I’m not discounting the fact that what the main character experiences, such as bullying and sexual assault, don’t contribute to the situation. They completely do. But suicide is much more complex than just cause and effect. The show also simplifies self-harm down to an alternative to suicide, which is glorification that could influence people to partake in the act.
Lastly, 13 Reasons Why depicts all the other characters, including the school counselor, as unsupportive and uncaring. In honesty, many people will find themselves in situations where it seems no one cares or notices them. But there’s always someone to talk to, even if it’s just a suicide hotline. This lack of supportive peers and adults could deter people from seeking help for their own mental health issues.
Speaking of which, no resources are provided to viewers who may relate to the characters and need support. Speaking from experience, 13 Reasons Why can be very aggravating on someone’s mental health and suicidal ideation. The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention states that, when discussing suicide, providing websites or hotlines can help prevent contagion.
Yet, despite all of this, people are still captivated by 13 Reasons Why. Why? Well, because people only want to talk about suicide if it’s glamorized. If it’s coated in sugar, produced by a celebrity, and handed to you via Netflix. No one wants to look at the darker side of the issue. This lack of attention should be shocking, but it’s the social norm. Accurate, safe, stigma-free portrayals of mental illness and suicide are greatly needed. Sadly, 13 Reasons Why didn’t supply this. Who will finally be brave enough to step up to the plate, forgot ratings and audience numbers, and promote productive discussion of mental illness?