13 Reasons Why, the newest Netflix success, is still causing controversy. Critics welcomed the show with warm reviews on March 31st, but, as the series’s hype increased, there was some backlash and disapproval of the depiction of the main character’s depression and ultimate decision to end her life. The show, however, was responsible for bringing awareness to mental health problems, mainly those most common with teenagers.
The show is based on a 2007 book of the same name by Jay Asher. The story is about Hannah Baker, a 17-year-old girl, who, after struggling with depression, psychological and physical abuse for over a year, decides to kill herself. Before dying, Hannah records 13 tapes in which she discloses the 13 reasons why she killed herself. The reasons, however, are all people.
Critics questioned the way the Netflix show depicted the aftermath of Hannah’s suicide. Some said the series expressed the idea that suicide is inevitable because the people surrounding Hannah felt a sense of helpless about her situation. They were not able to help her or prevent her from killing herself because she was already dead by the time they understood she needed help. Instead, Hannah’s acquaintances were only able to agonize over her tapes and feel guilty for being one of her “reasons.”
The show, however, does nothing to affirm that suicide is inevitable. On the contrary, the show emphasizes that Hannah did not try everything she could to stay alive. For example, she should have sought professional help after getting nowhere with her school’s counselor.
Other critics analyzed Hannah’s graphic suicide scene as inappropriate and triggering. One of the show’s writers, Nic Sheff, disclosed his own mental health journey to explain the staff’s decision to depict Hannah’s suicide in such a raw way.
“It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like — to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse,” Sheff wrote.
Sheff also said most people who consider suicide see it as the only way out of their suffering. Suicide, however, is not necessarily an immediate end to pain. Hannah screams as she slits her wrists and is clearly in excruciating pain as she waits for death. (Not every suicide attempt is successful either). The show does not portray death as the answer to obstacles, breaking some conceptions that suicide is somehow peaceful. 13 Reasons Why makes clear that death is not the best alternative, but that reaching out for help is. Some contend the graphic scenes glamorize suicide. But, if anything, it depicts how brutal and final these decisions are.
13 Reasons Why’s impact is not limited to media pundits, however. As the show became more popular, many started to share their own mental health experiences. Most are those who have gone through anxiety disorders and depression. These brave survivors bring awareness about how consuming these diseases are and how they still cope with the repercussions in their daily life.
In Australia, suicide hotline calls spiked. In some countries like Brazil, hashtags inspired by the show trended on Twitter, encouraging kindness, respect, and consideration toward others.
The consequences of the show in real life, such as the hashtags and the suicide hotline spike, emphasize that shows depicting mental health problems are lacking and are necessary. According to the World Health Organization [WHO], around 800,000 people die by suicide every day. Suicide is also the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. According to Statista, 65% of internet users between the ages of 16 to 24 are Netflix users. This proves that more shows like 13 Reasons Why are needed because they have the power to bring awareness of these difficult issues to young people where they consume media.
So often, the entertainment industry refuses to accept realistic depictions of mental health issues, including suicide. Nonetheless, there needs to be more emphasis on education about seeking help and identifying signs in people who need assistance. Most of the time, there is a gap between reality and what is depicted on our screen. We can only achieve a more engaged and aware society with more shows like 13 Reasons Why that depict difficult, necessary stories.