13 Reasons Why: A Brief Review By A Mental Health Professional
I recently finished watching the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why. I have to say that it is definitely worth watching, especially for those of us who are parents, work with teenagers or are in any helping profession.
Last night I was talking with one of my interns who said she recommended that her class watch 13 Reasons Why, but that her professor felt like the show idolizes and romanticizes suicide, so her request was rejected. I think most people who believe this haven’t watched all 13 episodes of the show.
13 Reasons Why isn’t just about a teenage girl committing suicide, it’s about her life. It deals more with the way she lived and what she experienced than it does with her death. It’s also about the lives that teenagers today live in with the age of social media, sexting and where embarrassing pictures and videos can be shared with a single tap of the share button.
The show deals with drinking, drugs, bullying and other uncomfortable issues such as rape and yes, suicide.
Some critics believe that 13 Reasons Why is a dangerous show that may actually encourage teenage suicide. They fear what is called a suicide contagious effect where publicized suicides have a tendency to increase suicides and suicide attempts among the general population.
While there has been shown a correlation in publicized celebrity suicides on an increase in suicides and suicide attempts in the general population, there isn’t any evidence of fictional portrayals of suicide in television or literature having an impact on actual suicides.
13 Reasons Why explores the lives of modern teenagers in a sort of reverse murder mystery where we already know who killed Hannah, the character who’s life the show is mostly focused on, but through the eyes of Clay, the other main character. We get to reconstruct the pieces to why this happened.
In the show, the parents appear mostly clueless about what’s going on in their kids lives. The bullying, the drugs, the alcohol, the suicidal tendencies. It highlights how so many parents today are so focused on their own careers, relationships and even images of the family being perfect that they can’t see the self destruction going on right under their noses.
I spent five years working in a high school as a mental health counselor, and many of the issues those kids were facing and the things they were doing, their parents had no clue about. Not just including the drugs, alcohol and sex, but also the anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Most felt like they couldn’t talk to their parents, that their parents didn’t care or that their parents were already too overworked and over stressed to be “bothered” with their problems.
In 13 Reasons Why, there were many opportunities and people in Hannah’s life who could have possibly intervened before she got to the point of taking her life, but none of them did.
Her parents were too busy trying to keep their business afloat, her friends were busy being teenagers and not necessarily friends and the teachers and counselor all seemed rather clueless or even uncomfortable when it came to dealing with topics such as sexual assault and suicide.
Much like in real life, there wasn’t one single reason Hannah decided to kill herself. There were at least 13 as the title hints.
Many times when someone commits suicide, even with a suicide note left behind, loved ones are at a loss trying to figure out why the person did it. They may focus on one single event or reason such as depression or a break up, but usually it is more complicated than that.
In the show, much like in real life, Hannah talks about the many reasons that have led her to the point of taking her life. It doesn’t appear as if Hannah had been struggling with depression until the end, but that she lived a rather melodramatic life that was complicated by many different issues.
The show never really talks about mental illness or depression. Realistically, most teenagers who become depressed and suicidal don’t necessarily realize that they are suffering from a mental illness so it’s realistic for the show to never really talk about it using those clinical words.
The suicidal mind doesn’t think that way. It doesn’t think that “I feel really horrible about my life, but I know it’s just the depression talking”. Instead it makes the person feel hopeless, that things will never get better and that no one cares for them; even if they say it or show it, the suicidal mind will tell the person that they are just lying to spare their feelings.
Most people think that suicidal people are weak or just aren’t trying to cope. The suicidal mind is exhausted from trying to cope, of caring, of being hurt and in pain. It’s a dangerous place to be and it’s where suicidal people spend most of their time, in their mind.
In the end, Hannah felt as if she had no other choice, but to kill herself. She was never offered an alternative to the despair, agony and loneliness she felt other than to turn to drugs and alcohol like many of the other students in the series.
“We all let her down… She took her own life. That was her choice. You, me, everyone on these tapes, we all let her down. We didn’t let her know that she had another choice. Maybe we could’ve saved her life, maybe not.”, says Tony, one of the characters on the show and Clay’s friend.
The suicidal mind believes that it has a choice; to live or to die. Only the suicidal mind doesn’t fight fair because it is overly emotional, irrational, unrealistic and incredibly persuasive.
For those, who are afraid that the show will increase the likelihood of suicide or suicide attempts in teenagers, I suggest watching the entire season before coming to a conclusion.
The show deals with the uncomfortable issues facing teenagers in our society and in the least it’s gotten more people talking about those issues which in itself makes it a show worth watching and I’m glad it got renewed for a second season because I hope it can further this much needed discussion.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text “help me” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.