I think at this point we are all familiar with 13 Reasons Why and the controversy surrounding the Netflix series. I know, I know. It’s been talked to death. But let’s talk about it for Mental Health Week anyway.
If you’re not familiar with the controversy, let me fill you in.
The Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher’s novel young adult novel 13 Reasons Why has been receiving both praise and criticism. The story depicts the life of a group of teenagers after the death by suicide of a girl named Hannah Baker. Hannah leaves tapes behind describing the thirteen reasons she had for dying.
While mental health advocates and professionals believe that talking about mental illness and suicide is important, they also believe that the makers of the series did not handle this sensitive material correctly. Not only so, but the makers seem often to actively go against media guidelines for talking about suicide.
For example, mental health organizations advise not sensationalizing suicide or providing graphic depictions of the death or the method. They say to avoid glorifying the victim or incident, and to not make suicide seem like it’s a means to solve problems.
While an entertaining story, 13 Reasons Why’s approach to suicide and sexual assault is problematic. It can be very triggering. Not only does it go against these media guidelines, it makes the option of counseling seem woefully ineffective and even harmful—when really they should be encouraging it.
Not only so, but it makes it seem like bullying was the only cause for Hannah’s death. You can’t stop someone from dying by suicide simply by being nice to them (but you should still be nice to them). If someone is bullied and subsequently has thoughts of suicide, that bullying has likely triggered clinical depression. You can’t talk someone out of clinical depression, and being nice to them is not going to be a deciding factor. They need professional treatment. This is something that 13 Reasons Why never addresses at all.
I could go on and on. There are a lot of things that make this show problematic. And that is really unfortunate.
Ultimately, the show’s goal is to be entertaining.
I have not personally read the book and therefore can’t speak to the book or the quality of the adaptation. However, I have watched the entire series and was on the edge of my seat the whole time.
It was often hard to watch. The pain that Hannah was in and the lack of communication was heartbreaking. It was awful seeing how the others treated Hannah and it was awful seeing what was going on in the others’ lives as well.
But I was watching this show as an adult; as someone who is not currently experiencing suicidal ideations or clinical depression. I am also trained in mental health first aid and am familiar with the way some mental illnesses manifest. I could handle this show.
But I also know and work with teens. And despite the setting, the age of the main characters, and the demographic of the source material, this show is not for teens. This is a show with mature content that is best processed by adults who are not triggered by the topics covered.
Almost, if not all, of the criticisms leveled against 13 Reasons Why are completely valid. They did tons of things that made me scratch my head and think, how could you have possibly thought it was a good idea to do things that way…?
But banning 13 Reasons Why, like some schools are doing, is not the answer.
Banning anything is never really the answer. Try looking at all the Banned Books and Freedom to Read week things.
You can’t stop kids from watching stuff. If they want to watch it, they will find a way. Not allowing them to discuss it at school is a bad idea. Make a point to have a proper, well-informed discussion–that is a better idea.
Provide teens with resources to deal with their responses and feelings stirred up watching 13 Reasons Why. Tell them what the show got wrong, and provide the truth to those things. Warn those who haven’t yet watched they could be triggered by it. Tell parents, and encourage them to have discussions with their kids.
What Paris Jackson Has to Say
A self-professed suicide survivor, of multiple attempts, this is what the daughter of Michael Jackson had to say about 13 Reasons Why:
this show was an amazing way to get the message across to bullies that they need to stop doing what they are doing, it really did a good job of showing how impactful words and actions can be to other human beings. you can’t just do or say things to people without thinking about how it will affect them. but at the same time it is also an extremely triggering thing to watch. please only watch this show with caution and keep in mind that it may put you in a dark place. if you are struggling please don’t watch it. if you think you can handle it, please by all means check it out.
What can we do now?
It may get a lot of things wrong, but let 13 Reasons Why turn into something good. Open up about mental illness, suicide, and bullying, and dispel myths. Have real conversations, educate people about the signs of being suicidal, and tell them there is hope and help and where to find it.
Don’t ban conversations about this show and leave teens to their own thoughts. Talk about it. This mental health week, let’s all talk about it.
You are not alone. You are loved. I know it doesn’t feel this way, but it will get better. There is hope. We can get you help. Suicide is never the answer.
Beth is the founder and editor of Fuelled by Fiction. She is a twenty-something east coast Canadian girl who loves writing about books and feminism.