13 Reasons Why is a show on Netflix that has been sweeping the world by storm. It deals with the suicide of a teenage girl and you guessed it, the 13 reasons why she killed herself. The idea is quite intriguing but I think the execution was extremely flawed. As someone with a mental illness and who also studies the psychology I think the show had big ambitions but didn’t do enough research. I do know it was based on a book so I’m not sure who is to blame. In any case, I thought I would share with you 13 of my thoughts on the show (do you see what I did there?)
1. It is brave. It is one of the first television shows to talk about suicide so openly and this is something that needs to happen. Unfortunately, suicide is quite common and it is only through talking about it that we can make some genuine progress in reducing suicide rates. In a country like Australia where 8 people die a day from suicide, more than die on the roads, we need the media to portray these sorts of stories.
2. With all of this being said, the show gives a very narrow perspective on what suicide is and what causes it. It plays into the narrative most people already swallow, and in this sense contributes to stereotypes about what being suicidal looks like. Most people don’t have 13 reasons why they killed themselves. They just couldn’t do it anymore. And the notion that people need some artistic explanation for their decision to die is troubling to say the least. It almost undervalues the suicides of lonely people or those with mental illness, but more on that later.
3. The show engages in very little discussion about the main characters mental health. The causes of her suicide are all portrayed as external but the internal is ignored. It would have been amazing to see the show really delve into what it is like to be in the head of a suicidal person. But instead it played into a narrative designed to justify the suicide as opposed to understanding it. I also think that when you show young people a step-by-step way to justify their suicide if enough bad things have happened to them, you’re going to have something to answer for down the track.
4. Be careful what you say to people. I’m going to acknowledge that this is a great message. But at some points I do feel it really took over the story. The audience is made aware that you need to be careful what you say or do or you might make someone kill themselves and it would be all your fault. This may be an unpopular opinion but it comes from someone who has been there…The only person who is at fault when a suicide occurs is the person who committed suicide. No matter what happened in their life to push them in that direction, they are an autonomous being and ultimately made that choice. To claim otherwise is actually an insult to their memory. It should never be left to the living to claim responsibility for another’s choice to take their life. People often torture themselves for eternity thinking what they could have done to stop a suicide from occurring. We don’t need a television show to encourage this sort of anguish.
5. I really don’t like how the show makes suicide calculative. Whilst many people think about suicide for a long time, the actual decision to do it is often rash. People are in a particular head space, a moment of desperation, and suicide seems like their only option. They are often not thinking clearly and aren’t fully cognisant of the significance of their actions on those around them. They just want out. To portray a suicidal person as calculative, and pre-meditative to the extreme may create a cool TV show, but it contributes to the negative view held by many that people who commit suicide are selfish and don’t care about those close to them. In reality, as shown by many suicide attempt survivors, attempted suicide is a momentarily slip that they live to regret.
6. An ugly side of the coin that the show didn’t portray is how suicide often doesn’t work. Failed suicide attempts can result in permanent physical and intellectual disability, not just scars. Maybe I am just being nit picky, but this show spends so much time discussing why dying is justifiable, I feel it should give voice to the risks and why suicide isn’t your best option. I honestly feel so much about her trip down memory lane and her suicide was romanticised and the ugliness of the thing its self left out. And yes the show achieved shock value by showing her entire suicide but I still don’t feel it was an honest portrayal of all of the complexities of suicide.
7. Was the gruesome death scene necessary? For those of you who don’t know the show does not shy away from her depicting the main character slitting her wrists in the bath tub. Nor do they hold back when showing her mother finding her. The scene is very well performed and the actors and everyone involved should be happy with how it turned out. Many people have argued that the death scene needs to be gruesome in order to show the reality of suicide. The show has been applauded for this fact. But I would argue that the viewing is so extreme that it actually makes the viewer switch off. There is a principle in health promotion about instilling just the right amount of fear and anxiety to initiate change. For example, for cigarette smoking you shown a sick man talking to his daughter. You do no show the man dying as his daughter weeps. This would cause too much arousal and cause people to switch off. When people are too aroused they can’t take your message in. And this may lead to them drawing interpretations of their own other than your desired message.
8. As risen above, the suicide scene has the potential to be misinterpreted. As does the entire series in my opinion. Whilst it intends to be a cautionary tale about teen suicide, it actually portrays an almost step-by-step guide on how to kill yourself. It may as well be saying ‘Hey Kids, if you can think of a bunch of reasons to die, here’s how to do it!’ The potential for suicide contagion is significant. Especially because the show plays into teenage angst concerning the world being out to get them. This is my biggest concern with the show.
9. Whilst I have many issues with how 13 Reasons Why portrayed suicide I think it did a very good job of portraying the multitude of reactions to suicide. It was great to see some people completely fall apart whilst others kept a distance from their feelings. And like I mentioned earlier, the mother discovering her was a very powerful moment.
10. I felt the show did a really great job of presenting how a school reacts to a tragedy like this. Although the law suit component is a touch unrealistic in Australia, I recognised my own school being mirrored back at me. Schools often make misguided attempts to support the students and community that end up doing more harm than good. I remember when a boy from my school committed suicide and the school got his parents to come talk to us about bullying when it was still really raw. They ended up breaking down and it was traumatic for everyone concerned. So it was nice to see that kooky school response portrayed.
11. The show gave voice to ‘fake mourners’. You know who I mean, those people who are suddenly the person’s best friend once they have died. In the case above, I remember people who met this boy once having great stories about him. And whether or not the stories are true, they always leave a bad taste in the mouth of the people closest to the person. I enjoyed seeing that dynamic portrayed on screen.
12. The butterfly effect. 13 Reasons Why does a capital job at demonstrating that every action has a reaction. In both directions we see the everyday events that increase her suicidality and we see how different everyday events become once she has committed suicide. This was probably the biggest strength of the show.
13. Lucky last. For a show that promoted itself as raising awareness about suicide, it spends a lot of time talking about why someone would elect to kill themselves as opposed to portraying reasons to live. There is a sort of cautionary tale for people about being careful about how their actions affect others but there is little said about what a suicidal person can do to seek help. Furthermore, the emphasis of the negative impact of her suicide is the effect it has on others instead of the tragedy of a loss of life and potential. Whilst one would like to think that worrying about hurting your friends and family is enough to prevent suicide, it often isn’t. So I think the show missed the mark on giving any of its struggling viewers enough reason to hang around.
It’s been funny. As everyone has been obsessing about 13 Reasons Why I watched one half hour program that in my opinion achieved far more than this series in raising awareness about suicide. You Can’t Ask That is an ABC series (available on iView) which involves people from certain communities to answering taboo questions about their experiences. This particular episode centred on Suicide Attempt Survivors. The participants discussed why they did it, what happened next, their regrets and their favourite things about people alive. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants more a earnest and genuine look at the complexities of suicide than 13 Reasons Why can provide.
To surmise, I think 13 Reasons Why is an overrated program. Whilst it did an admirable job of portraying the way an entire community reacts to a suicide, it promoted a simplified and glamorised perspective of suicide. I am genuinely worried about the prospect of suicide contagion caused by this TV show. In the shows defence, it was the first of its kind and there was no way known it could be perfect. But I hope it has opened the doors to more media portrayals of suicide and mental illness in future. Here’s to a future where we not only discuss important issues like suicide, but discuss them in a responsible and safe way!