Does “13 Reasons Why” Romanticize Suicide?”

Kyla Hunter ’19

If you watch TV and live on planet Earth, odds are you’ve already seen the new TV series “13 Reasons Why.” Despite receiving rave reviews and becoming wildly popular, the Netflix original series produced by Selena Gomez has also sparked controversy.

The show, released approximately four weeks ago on March 31st, tells the story of teenager Hannah Baker’s suicide through a series of cassette tape recordings that she leaves behind for the individuals whom she blames for her suicide. Each of the 13 tapes details a different reason contributing to her suicide.

Based off the book by Jay Asher, this show was intended as a cautionary tale to increase awareness about suicide and stimulate conversation about suicide prevention. However, many mental health experts fear that the show could be more harmful than helpful.

According to Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, one failure of the show is that it allowed to be Hannah to be depicted as a martyr–that is, it memorialized her through her death. The fact that Hannah can tell her story after death not only glamorizes her suicide, but also sends a potentially dangerous message; due to Hannah’s continuous presence, the show fails to convey the sense of finality that death really brings.

Another concern, according to Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the JED Foundation, is the premise that other people are at fault for Hannah’s suicide. “The tendency to imagine kill[ing] yourself as a way to get back at people feels like an adolescent fantasy,” says Schwartz. In reality, there are almost always greater underlying issues that lead to suicides.

Moreover, Schwartz says that this “leaves the survivors with a horrifying burden of guilt.” Experts are further disappointed that the drama failed to explore the idea of mental illness. “Sequences of terrible things happen to Hannah, and we don’t get a feel for her internalization until she kills herself,” Schwartz comments. “None of that stuff is made clear because it’s focused on the horrible things people have done to her. The whole thing is an extended revenge fantasy.” Although 90% of individuals who commit suicide experience mental illness, the show never considers whether Hannah is suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or any other issues.

Mental health professionals also fear that the show will cause teenagers to be less likely to seek help from adults. In one of the final episodes, Hannah finally decides to seek help from her guidance counselor, but he fails to detect her signs of suicidal behavior and dismisses her feelings. Phyllis Alongi, the clinical director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, struggled to watch the scene involving the guidance counselor.

“As a mental health professional and someone who works with kids, it’s cringe-inducing,” Alongi says, “but it was scripted that way–and kids need to know that.”

Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, says “young people are not that great at separating fiction from reality. That gets even harder to do when you’re struggling with thoughts.”

Another major problem experts have with the show is the graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide. Although producers consulted with mental health experts before shooting, many professionals of the suicide prevention community still feel that the scene goes too far.

Producers claim scene was intended to be painful to watch in order to convey a message. However, Reidenberg says “there should be no reason, no justification whatsoever, why any kind of production–entertainment or news–would be so descriptive and so graphic.” Reidenberg points out that TV shows should have the ability to raise awareness about suicide without glamorizing it. Experts fear that the graphic depiction of the suicide along with sensational headlines about the popular TV show romanticize the issue and will lead to “copycat” suicides.

Clearly, many mental health professionals have voiced their concerns. “We feel it was done irresponsibly and we don’t agree with many portrayals including of Hannah’s death, memorialization, and placing blame on others,” summarizes Alongi.

Overall, however, despite the concerns that have arisen, professionals are eager to use this as an opportunity for a learning experience. Experts say the best solution is to focus on ways we can improve and open up the door for more discussion about suicide prevention.

See the trailer here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JebwYGn5Z3E

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Emily Hsiang ’19

A Student’s View

I apologize in advance for not taking advantage of the potential for a “13 Reasons Why You Should Watch 13 Reasons Why” pun.

Netflix recently released the original series 13 Reasons Why, written by Jay Asher and produced by Selena Gomez. Based on the best-selling YA novel, 13 Reason Why is a high school drama following closed-off and curious Clay Jensen, after a shoebox stuffed with a bunch of cassette tapes arrives at his doorstep.

After the whole “what the heck is a cassette tape” mystery is solved, there is actually even more mystery that ensues!

Clay finds that the tapes hold recordings from Hannah Baker, a friend and a crush of his who had recently committed suicide. On each tape, Hannah lists one of the “13 Reasons Why” she decided to kill herself – “and if you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why”. Each episode follows one of the recipients of these tapes, and how their story had intertwined with Hannah’s. Obviously, however, there is so much more to the plot than just that. I mean, how can you know that Hannah is telling the truth about all of these people she is exposing?

13 Reasons has a very dark, intense, “don’t watch this while you’re home alone” mood to it. A lot of the show consists of Clay biking around town at night, with drunk, tattoo-bearing teenagers on his tail. Pretty much every character is some sort of archetype, West Coast teenager who does things the teachers at this school would not like to see…these kids don’t use swear words lightly.

I guess there is a pretty nice aesthetic to the show, however, with its city vibe and incessant edginess.

When I watched the first episode, I was feeling pretty negative about the whole thing and had trouble getting past how similar it felt to all the other teen dramas I knew. You know, the whole “he’s a nerd, and she’s totally out of his league, and he’s hopelessly in love with her, but it’s quirky” plot line comes up a lot in YA fiction. Oh yeah, the whole “death” thing comes up a lot too. I mean, 13 Reasons Why has a similar feeling to Jesse Andrews’ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl at times, and the dynamic between Clay and Hannah is similar to that of Q and Margo in John Green’s Paper Towns.

Honestly, at first, I was a bit annoyed with how dramatic and cliche the show tended to be. You think that it’s enough that the show is about suicide and relationships, but then they add , bullying, and then they add a STALKER, and it just keeps piling on. There were also just little details that made me feel like the show was trying too hard to be “quirky”: the fact that one of the teenagers has a red mustang, and the fact that the protagonist’s name is actually Clay.

By about the third episode, however, I had tripped and fallen into the world of 13 Reasons, and I forgot to be critical. I realized that, I wasn’t really being critical of the show’s attempts to be all cute, I was actually just being critical of the YA genre, which 13 Reasons was just a representation of. Maybe it is dramatic and cliche, but that’s what it’s supposed to be; that’s the fun of it. So, I sucked it up and started to enjoy it.

Once I started to enjoy it, well, I was hooked. I’ve heard this series described as “bingeable”, and while I hate the way that word sounds, it’s pretty accurate. After a certain point, there’s absolutely no way to walk away from this show. The characters keep dropping these really vague, mysterious bombs of information and then walking away before explaining them so that you have to keep watching. It’s actually cruel, the way they suck you in.There’s no doubt that this show is entertaining. At a certain point, during spring break, you’re going to get tired of scrolling through the beach pictures everyone is posting to Instagram. When that happens, get yourself on Netflix and check out 13 Reasons Why. You don’t even have to get up from the couch to do it!

 

About Kyla Hunter ’19, Emily Hsiang ’19

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