13 Reasons Why…Or Why Not?

[SPOILERS BELOW.] There’s been a lot of discussion about the Netflix release of the TV adaptation of Jay Asher’s book “Thirteen Reasons Why,” particularly backlash about teens emulating what they see on the show, that the show promotes suicidal ideation and suicide itself, that it’s sensational and graphic.

Well, yeah. It’s the story of 17-year old Hannah Baker, who kills herself and leaves behind cassette tapes for 13 people to listen to after she’s gone, so they understand how they are complicit in her death. No one said Jay Asher doesn’t know a good dramatic concept for a novel.

But should it have become a TV Show? There are problems. The primary problem is that it sensationalizes depression, partly with the medium. Clay the narrator is listening to Hannah talk about what led to her death. As a viewer, we become like Clay, interested and compelled to finish to “find out what happens.” But we know what happens–she dies by suicide. People want to know why, and the show gives us many reasons. But the way in which they’re displayed is for entertainment. It glamorizes suicide as a revenge story to be told, a way to “live on” despite creating a very finite end for yourself.

Also, there is a graphic scene at the end depicting Hannah’s suicide that is unnecessary and potentially harmful to people with suicidal ideation.

And yet, I watched the entire thing. Call me curious. Call me older and wiser and not currently at risk. Call me someone on antidepressants. I don’t know what would have happened if I had seen this when I was younger.

People have a right to their opinions about the show. Depression and mental illness (and someday, we will come up with a better term than “mental illness”) are personal, touch people differently, touch their families and friends differently. From my perspective, as someone who battles depression and has been suicidal, I found the show to be truthful in many ways. The extreme embarrassment of teen years, high school, trying to fit in, betrayal…I don’t know what I would have done without my best friend, and a slew of other good friends. I had stability in my family, even if they didn’t understand what was happening with me. I can imagine the horror that social media has inflicted on teens–at least I could go home and escape for a while, even if I couldn’t escape my own thoughts. It was a release. In the show, there is no release for Hannah.

I’ve also worked with teens who have faced similar situations. Not always at the same time, but they are certainly battling the same concerns as adults (fitting in, money, family trouble, rape/consent), just at a younger age and often with fewer choices, power, and resources. And more hormones.

One reappearing argument against the show is that the words “depression” and “mental illness” are never used. That could make it seem as if Hannah had to kill herself because bad things kept happening to her, and yeah, that’s not a great message. Everyone involved with the show (including producer Selena Gomez and writer Jay Asher) “want to have a discussion” about suicide, but they never make it clear if Hannah is depressed, if it’s bullying that does it, if it’s her rape, etc (the girl goes through a lot). Maybe that’s intentional, to be more broadly understood by a variety of viewers.

But suicide is motivated not only by depression. Depression is listed as the reason 90% of people kill themselves, but traumatic events can also trigger the desire to die (PTSD, war, sexual assault), as can eating disorders/malnutrition, terminal illness, chronic pain, etc. They can also trigger depression, but we can’t say depression is the only reason people become suicidal.

So even now, I’m thinking about this topic and how we talk about it, how depression and mental illness affect suicide, what my teen friends think of it. I would like to hear other perspectives on this, if you have them. But I believe talking openly about suicide is the most important change we could be making right now. We can’t make things better if we don’t talk, and that show has everyone talking, whether or not TV is the appropriate medium. And if this isn’t the way to discuss, what are better ways to get everyone thinking about this? I’m curious who advised the show before they called it a wrap…