I’ve done what everyone else seems to be doing at the moment, binge-watched 13 Reasons Why on Netflix. I’d seen it praised as a ‘necessary watch’ on suicide and mental health on social media, and has broken the record for Netflix's most-tweeted-about show. Sadly, I found a series that was irresponsible, ill-thought out, and unhealthy in its portrayal of serious issues.
Naturally I was glad to see the show, adapted from a novel of the same name, had spurred a conversation around suicide amongst young people. In the UK, it was the leading cause of death for 20-34 year-olds in 2013. I also understand that parts of the production do reflect certain real-life struggles – the circumstances around people’s battles with poor mental health and suicide are both varied and personal. However, the end does not always justify the means, and in this case, those means are powerful and potentially dangerous.
Suicide is a delicate issue to cover. It’s important to tackle it head on and speak openly, because it’s real and it happens. It’s more important to tackle it responsibly, and focus on prevention, in both fact and fiction. Media, when reporting on factual cases of suicide, must apply caution in the details it covers, and when portraying fictional circumstances, should consider the impact and influence their stories have over their viewers.
In 2008, a World Health Organisation (WHO) publication on media coverage of suicide stated:
13 Reasons does all the above in its telling of Hannah’s death, and the factors that led to it. The way in which her story is followed, via the tape recordings and ‘treasure hunt’ style map, dramatises and sensationalises the circumstances surrounding her death. It takes serious issues and deals with them in a form that’s detached from reality. The tapes use suicide as a means of exposing the actions of Hannah’s peers, making them feel guilty for their actions, and seeing them come to terms with the truth as a means of revenge. This takes a higher role in the series’ narrative, rather than exploring the complex detail of mental illness, and the varied impact that relationships have on well-being during school-life.
The piece manages to sensationalise the narrative, while reducing suicide to a cause-effect result of high school bullying. It’s angle? Only love could have saved Hannah. The reality? If you’re that close to suicide, you feel undeserving of that love in the first place. Mental health is complicated, and despite research finding that about 90% of individuals who die by suicide experience mental illness, the show doesn’t even try to understand it.
The dramatisation of taking one’s own life is not the only area in which 13 Reasons Why falls short. As we’re taken through Hannah’s story, learning about the interactions and events that lead to her death, we never discover an alternative. Suicide is never the only option, and if we’re to move forward in prevention and awareness, shows such as this have a responsibility not to present it as such. Throughout the series, we see various characters turn to people for help, from loved ones and family, to friends and school staff. When Hannah turns to any of these, she never finds a way out. In a last-ditch attempt to find an outlet for her thoughts through the school counsellor, they fail to listen and act.
I’m not here to say she shouldn’t have died, that everything should have ended in ‘happily ever after’ fashion, but an alternative, a better way out, a lifeline must be presented. Suicidal thoughts can leave you feeling helpless and overwhelmed, but there is always an alternative to suicide and if you’re making a show that aims to create a conversation around mental-health and bullying, respect your viewers enough to show them that there is another way.
One of the messages that could easily be taken from 13 Reasons by those struggling with the issues it covers, is that if you’re finding life tough and no longer worth living, nobody is equipped to help you. I know that if I had watched it whilst still vulnerable, it could very simply have pushed me closer to death, rather than further away.
The final failure of this small-screen adaptation comes in its thirteenth and final episode. Hannah’s suicide. This part of the story is the most obvious reason why the show should never be hailed as a good example of mental health related storytelling. According to Samaritans and others, conveying the details of suicide methods have been shown to prompt vulnerable individuals to imitate that behaviour. Though the depiction of Hannah’s suicide contains no soppy flashbacks, sad indie tunes or fanatical shouting and screaming, it’s hard not to see it as a WikiHow on taking one’s own life. The steps are slowly narrated by Clay, whilst we see the death happening in graphic detail.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention states that the risk of additional suicides increases when stories explicitly describe the suicide method. This is where the production completely falls flat.
13 Reasons Why has got people talking about an important issue, but displays irresponsible and unhealthy ideas and narratives in relation to it. With its heart seemingly in the right place, the industry must now do better in helping those it seeks to appeal to.
If you've been affected by any of the issues addressed, you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123.