Earlier this month, a friend’s 12-year-old sister told me about an “amazing” new show that she had just binge watched. I was intrigued, assuming it was something predictable for her age. When she said “13 Reasons Why,” my jaw dropped. I knew this show was gaining a following, but I never would have imagined it would reach such a young age. I felt like I needed to watch it, not for entertainment, but to see what’s really about. I was seriously disturbed by what I discovered.
The show is based on Jay Asher’s book 13 Reasons Why, which deals with the suicide of high school student Hannah Baker. Before her death, she creates 13 cassette tapes—each one directed at a different person who she claims is a reason for her death—to ultimately instill guilt as part of her revenge. The show takes on some very real and serious matters, but in many ways, fails to handle them properly. Here are 13 reasons why:
- The show breaches every standard for Reporting on suicide.
Reportingonsuicide.org is an organization that has outlined a list of specific requirements for media and journalists reporting on suicide, based on more than 50 international studies. Their premise is that the media has the power to influence suicidal behavior in viewers, or to deter it.
Regulations discourage the sensationalization of the suicide, discussion about contents of suicide notes, discussion of the suicide method, speculation about why the person may have done it, quotations from police or first responders and glamorizing the suicide. They also encourage reporting on suicide as a public health issue and urge journalists to describe suicide as “died by suicide” or “completed” or “killed him/herself,” rather than “committed suicide.”
Unfortunately, the show essentially violates every single one of these recommendations, which backfires on its goals of educating viewers about suicide and deems it much more destructive than productive.
- The basis of this show is entertainment.
The producers claim that the point of the show is to raise awareness. But is it really? Netflix is a money-making entertainment industry. The plot of the show is designed to create suspense and, by dragging it out for 13 episodes, we spend a lot of time watching the drama unfold between other characters. Raising awareness requires time spent on proper research, not on developing an entertaining plot.
- There is a glorification of suicide.
Ultimately, as the show is focused on entertainment, we see that it glorifies suicide by making the plot revolve around Hannah’s over-dramatic, romantic and artistic death by suicide. We watch Hannah go out with a “bang” by leaving tapes that will control the 13 subjects, forcing them to continue thinking about, and feeling intense guilt about their involvement in her death. The reality is that, in the time leading up to a suicide, there is an ugly, harrowing and agonizing period of pain. Suicide is not an easy way out, or a simple decision made after going through painful and traumatic events—it is a result of pervasive feelings of despair caused by mental illnesses like depression. We see that Hannah gets what she wants by leaving her listeners confused, distraught and guilty, and so her suicide is glorified and turned into an artistic expression.
- It normalizes rape.
The show’s portrayal of graphic rape scenes is both disturbing and unnecessary. Because the show takes on so many serious issues, the aftermath of both Jessica’s and Hannah’s rapes are almost completely ignored. While rape and sexual assault are undoubtedly something that affects way too many adolescents, the show portrays these scenes as just a couple of many events, which downplays their gravity, compared to instances of teasing or failed friendships. Hannah’s 13 reasons are all conveyed as equally weighted “reasons” for her suicide, which minimizes the very serious affects of rape, such as PTSD. The characters’ denial of Hannah’s truthfulness about the rapes further demonstrates the lack of seriousness taken on this issue.
- It misrepresents depression.
The show fails to associate suicide with mental illness. Dr. Yael Muskat, Director of the YU Counseling Center, explains that, “In most suicides, there is the presence of a mental health issue. Depression is the most common underlying condition, but severe anxiety, trauma and others can contribute as well.” The show never mentions depression or any mental illness, but rather, blames Hannah’s suicide on a series of events. However, suicide is a result of a mental illness and is not a logical, thought-out choice.
- It ignores warning signs of suicide.
Leading up to Hannah’s death, there are no indications of her plans of suicide. Mental health professionals have established warning signs to look out for, and none of them are present in the show. Dr. Muskat says, “While suicide can’t be predicted, there are warning signs that adults and friends can be aware of that can help prevent suicide. Those include changes in mood, behavior or demeanor and any passive or active statements about wanting to die.” While Hannah once approached her school counselor and asks him for a reason to live, this is the only example in the show of any predictable behavior. Again, if the show’s purpose is to be educational, it fails its audience because many of the common warning signs of suicide are not shown.
- It’s triggering.
The show contains incredibly graphic scenes of sexual assault, rape, and suicide. These scenes can be triggering and disturbing to anyone and dangerous for those who have experienced similar traumas.
The trigger warnings used in the show are not effective. There are only trigger warnings in a few episodes, even though there is triggering material in all of them. It’s also important to note that trigger warnings are triggering for those dealing with depression. Oftentimes, people suffering from depression or other mental illnesses will be fixated on their depression, and actively seek out triggering material. This is often a way through which to find solace and comfort, but it locks them into an addictive cycle of thoughts and behaviors. “They can feel almost envious that Hannah was able to do what they are not,” adds Dr. Muskat.
- The show appeals to children and teenagers.
The show is based on a book targeted toward teenagers and even people as young as middle school have been hooked on the show. Yes—it is very important for children and teens to be educated on these serious topics. With that said, the show fails to educate wisely. Because they are the most vulnerable, adolescents are apt to take this show as reality. It reinforces the stereotype that being dramatic about being depressed is going to get you attention and that revenge makes you live in infamy. It goes without saying that many of the scenes are extremely graphic and inappropriate for children.
- It perpetuates a stereotype.
Some say that, by setting the show in a small town, we can learn that this could happen to anyone. Yet, it’s portraying a totally stereotypical scenario, only reinforcing the idea the young, classic American teenager is suffering. By showing her suffering through the lens of high school drama, it makes Hannah’s deep pain both beautiful and petty, which trivializes the agonizing reality of depression.This perpetuates the idea that suicide and suicide attempts are attention seeking behaviors done by stereotypically dramatic, angsty and misunderstood teens.
- There are no coping skills.
Both in Hannah’s life leading up to her death, and the lives of the people affected by her death, we do not see any healthy coping mechanisms. She makes a couple of attempts to reach out, for instance through a letter that she anonymously submits in her communications class, and once asks her guidance counselor to give her a reason to live. But her cries for help are not taken seriously. The only coping method that the show portrays as successful is her ultimate death by suicide.
After Hannah’s death, many of her classmates spiral into intense feelings of guilt, paranoia, denial and even hopelessness. The school completely fails to address this, as we see when their only response is to put up posters and offer an event for parents to talk with the administration of the school. The characters listed on the tapes turn to drugs, alcohol, skipping school, promiscuous behavior, lying and deception, in order to cope with their feelings about Hannah’s death. Viewers may be looking for options to deal with similar feelings, but the show fails to offer any positive and healthy coping mechanisms, leaving us empty-handed.
- It sends a message to people who are dealing with these things that they cannot trust or rely on the resources that are available to them.
Young people are encouraged to reach out to adults, such as parents and school counselors, when they need help. From victim-blaming to denial, we see Hannah, and many of her peers, in situations where they have no one to turn to, leaving them isolated and hopeless. Dr. Muskat says, “[in the show] there were few or no interactions in which a student received the support they needed from a parent to help them deal with difficult emotions or make difficult decisions. Research indicates that adolescents and young adults who can’t turn to their parents can often rely on a mentor or caring adult, and this is a protective factor for them.” Unfortunately, the school counselor and teachers are portrayed as oblivious and unhelpful. Even Hannah’s peers are unreceptive to her pain, often bullying and making fun of her or downplaying it as a dramatic cry for attention. Muskat concludes that, “depicting teenagers in this cruel fashion can be reinforcing of negative beliefs for those struggling with social issues or isolation.” In reality, the resources available to teenagers, such as parents, school counselors and friends, are often very helpful for getting through hard times.
- People don’t want to die—they’re just in pain.
A common misconception is that people who die by suicide, want to die. But, this is not the reality. People who have suicidal ideation do not want to die; they just do not want to live. Suicide and crisis intervention specialist at Lines for Life, Raizel O’Brien, explains why this is: “The fact is, your survival instinct is way stronger than your depression, or other mental illness that leads to suicide. Your survival instinct always makes you want to choose life. It is very important that people understand that when it comes to people thinking of suicide, it’s not that they want to die, it’s that they don’t want to live. It’s a very important distinction, because if you do not want to live, but you do not want to die, there is hope.” We see in the show that Hannah is continuously looking for reasons to live, despite her pain. But, in the scene of her suicide, she is depicted to have an ultimate sense of relief and satisfaction as she dies. The reality is, many people who survive a suicide attempt regret their decision as soon as they made the attempt. By portraying Hannah’s death as a liberation from her pain, it gives a false message that suicide is a painless and easy solution.
- Many professionals in the field have raised serious concerns about it.
According to Dr. Muskat, “While that is a worthwhile cause, there are many concerns and potential risks involved in this show and in my mind the harm that may be caused is far greater than any positive effect the show may have.” As one of many mental health professionals who are concerned about the show, she and the Counseling Center have organized an event on the Beren campus to discuss it. Dr. Muskat quoted a statement from the National Association of School Psychologists, which says that “‘vulnerable youth’ should not watch the series. This is referring to students with mental health history or suicidal ideation.” There are also concerns of “copycat” behavior, particularly in “already vulnerable people.”
While Dr. Muskat acknowledges that the show is successful in showing the “terrible repercussions of bullying, sending pictures out of others, substance abuse and maltreatment of others,” and in sending the message of “the importance of having coping skills,” she says that the harm done by the show is much more significant than these positive outcomes.
Dr. Chaim Nissel, Yeshiva University Dean of Students, encourages students to reach out for help: “Anyone who is triggered by 13 Reasons Why, feels emotional distress for any reason or is having thoughts about suicide is urged to contact the YU counseling center at email@example.com. After hours, the Counseling Center can be reached by YU security or through the Resident Advisors.”
If you or a friend are in a crisis and need an immediate resource, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.