“13 Reasons Why” hurt more than it helped

8 mins read

“13 Reasons Why” was released on March 31, 2017. The television series, produced for Netflix, was adapted from the book of the same name, written by Jay Asher in 2007. The story is an emotional work of fiction, about a high school student, Hannah Baker, who takes her own life and leave 13 tapes explaining to 13 individuals their personal roles in her decision to end her life. The book is written from the first person point of view of Baker and Clay Jensen, a student who was a potential love interest for Baker and who is confused about his inclusion on the tapes. Each of the 13 episodes of the first season of the show details one of the tapes, delving into the story of one of the teenagers who allegedly led Baker to kill herself.

Clay Jensen, one of the show’s main characters, is featured on a promotional poster. Credit: Netflix.

Nothing about “13 Reasons Why” makes it an easy story to tell, or a simple plot to follow and fully understand. Though the series was originally meant to be a movie starring Selena Gomez, the actress took a behind-the-scenes role as a producer of the show. Granted this shift, the project took a relatively low profile before its release, with a cast comprised mostly of Hollywood newcomers and little-known faces. Despite this, “13 Reasons Why” became an instant success and soon gained a ravenous audience. Emilie Mueller, a sophomore at M-A, watched the entire series as did many of her peers, and said, “I started watching because all my friends said it was really good and I loved the book.”

Jay Asher’s novel was a 2007 success.

The show’s fan base is grounded in the teenage population who can relate to the show’s high school setting, though plenty of adults watched the season and found it surprisingly engrossing. Netflix does not release ratings of its shows, however by mid-April “13 Reasons Why” had become the most tweeted about show of 2017 thus far. Countless fans found the show simultaneously intriguing, heartbreaking, and at times, shocking. There’s no denying that the show was a financial and cultural success, but along with this popularity comes critique, and many viewers found some pieces of the series to be disturbing. “13 Reasons Why” has been mired in controversy since its release; it brings sensitive and complex issues to mind that have led to a discussion of the decisions made by the creators of the show, its viewers, and the communities they live in.

On May 2, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Newshour released a segment about “13 Reasons Why” in which reporters discussed the themes of the show with Christina Conolly, a mental health professional in charge of all psychological support services for public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland. She admitted that after watching the first episode of the series, she became engrossed in the story and, just like millions of other Americans, began watching episode after episode of “13 Reasons Why.”

According to Conolly, the show was heart-wrenching and very emotional, and after watching some of the graphic later episodes, she cried and even had difficulty sleeping. This sort of emotional effect is what captured and held the attention of viewers across America. While “13 Reasons Why” is inarguably a popular series and an engrossing adaptation of a novel, it contains quite a few points of controversy, and many professionals agree that it did not handle some of the sensitive topics it covered in an appropriate manner.

There is nothing to glorify about suicide. No part of the act is the result of one single experience or event, of one bad day or one mistake. Nothing about suicide is simple, and some mental health professionals are concerned that the show takes the most serious of issues and romanticizes it for the purposes of entertainment. One of the major guidelines for media covering suicide is not to sensationalize the issue or include scenes that make the aftermath of suicide or the time leading up to it seem trivial in any way.

“13 Reasons Why” includes several scenes that show students decorating Baker’s locker and taking pictures with the intended memorial. This behavior is not unrealistic and it does occur in the real world. However, glorifying pieces of a person’s past is not the appropriate way to treat a suicide and these actions are not recommended as a way to honor the memory of someone who has taken their own life. It is insensitive to reduce a person’s existence to photographs or a locker or to a box of cassette tapes that seem to blame the tragic suicide of a young woman on a finite number of individual people and experiences.

As a widespread media project, creators of “13 Reasons Why” had a unique opportunity to spread awareness of the fact that suicide is a public health issue, not a mystery or a series of dramatic events. In one of the last episodes of the show, Baker is finally shown committing suicide. The scene of her death is graphic and painful to watch. Baker is shown cutting her wrists, and the camera does not shift away from her as she uses razorblades to end her life. Brian Yorkey, one of the show’s creators, was interviewed on the PBS Newshour and explained, “We wanted it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.”

Dr. Michele Berk, an assistant professor in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry division of the Department of Psychiatry at Stanford University, has a rather different view of these graphic scenes. She added, “I, along with many other mental health professionals and national organizations dedicated to adolescent suicide prevention have many serious concerns about this show.”

All creators of media should be sensitive when discussing suicide. Credit: reportingonsuicide.org.

The show violated many of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s guidelines for safe media reporting of suicide, and according to Berk, “Some of the most dangerous violations are: 1) including a graphic scene in which a teen dies by suicide and portraying this event as an effective means of gaining a desired outcome; 2) not providing information about how to get help if a viewer is feeling suicidal or struggling with mental health concerns; 3) suggesting that Hannah’s friends and family are at fault for her suicide and failing to show that the causes of suicide are complex and that the primary cause of suicide is mental illness. Also of concern is the depiction of adults and counselors as being unreliable, unavailable and unhelpful.”

In the show, Hannah Baker visits the guidance counselor at her school, but he does not help her and does not follow up despite her mentioning causing serious harm to herself. This is not an accurate portrayal of most student support professionals, and this part of the series failed to express that there is always hope for teens struggling with suicidal thoughts. There is always someone who is willing to help, and Principal Kennel added that, at M-A, “students can check in with their guidance counselors, a Star Vista clinician in the guidance office or with staff in the support center in B-20 if they are in danger of harming themselves or are aware of someone who is. The message I’d like to impart to students and staff is ‘see something, say something, do something.’”

Parents should be available to their children to tackle tough issues.

M-A has a dedicated network of people who are ready and able to help students, something missing from Baker’s school in “13 Reasons Why.” Also missing from the show is the inclusion of resources for people watching who may be having suicidal thoughts or who are grappling with mental illness. These resources are vital as not everyone knows where to turn if they are in need of help. Sophomore Hannah Perez noted, “I know there are such things as suicide hotlines but other than that I don’t know of any other resource a person that is having suicidal thoughts could go to.”

The series also fails to mention that research shows that 90 percent of suicides are caused by mental illness, which is treatable with the help of medical professionals. Instead, the show portrays Hannah Baker’s suicide in an entertaining context, as an event that happened because of the actions of her peers. Sophomore Katie Thurston said, after watching the show, “I loved it at first and then thought more about it and felt like it treated suicide too lightly and downplayed it a bit. The message was almost to ‘go out in fashion’ with all of the personalized tapes. The show became so addicting because you wanted to hear the next tape so badly but in the end, it made the suicide of a depressed girl into a game.”

Like most Hollywood productions, “13 Reasons Why” was not an entirely clear picture of high school life, but some parts of it were true to M-A. Mueller said, “I think this show was somewhat realistic but parts of it were far-fetched. In my experience, people in high school are generally kind and accepting. The show portrays almost everyone to be mean and exclusive in some way, and while this does occur in high school, it is not as prevalent as the show makes it out to be. One thing that made “13 Reasons Why” realistic was that none of the scenes are really censored because life isn’t censored and you can’t just cut parts out that make you uncomfortable or scared.”

Any time a complex issue is molded into a Hollywood production, there is ample room for mistakes to be made and for details to be handled without the sensitivity they deserve. “13 Reasons Why” is a complicated project with good intentions but bad attention to detail, particularly to details regarding the appropriate way to help prevent teen suicide. These errors are severe enough that Berk recommends that teens with a history of suicidal thoughts, self-harm, or traumatic experiences similar to those in the show should not watch “13 Reasons Why.”

With the decision to renew “13 Reasons Why” for a second season, Netflix is attempting to spread awareness about the public health issue of suicide, although the first season was met with much controversy on this front. Many experts and fans hope to see more of an effort to portray high school life and serious topics of conversation in a responsible and appropriate manner in the show’s next episodes.

The administration at M-A sent an email to teachers urging them to be extra attentive to students’ behavior after the release of the show, and while Principal Kennel did not want to make the topic more of an issue than it needed to be, she stressed the importance of her students’ mental health. The bottom line is that when it comes to mental illness and teen suicide, there is always hope and there is always help. Below are resources if you or anyone you know is in danger of harming themselves.

If you are in danger of harming yourself or you are thinking about suicide:

  • Inform your parent(s) or another trusted adult
  • If you are in immediate danger, CALL 911 OR GO TO THE NEAREST EMERGENCY ROOM.

You may also call one of the emergency numbers below, which are available 24/7:

  • Santa Clara County Child and Adolescent Mobile Crisis Program (EMQ): 1-877-41-CRISIS (for residents of Santa Clara County)
  • San Mateo County Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Center: (650) 579-0350 (for residents of San Mateo County)
  • California Youth Crisis Line: 1-800-843-5200
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
  • Crisis Text Line: Text START to 741-741

Click here to get help or information from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Sarah is a senior and this is her third year writing for the Chronicle. After starting as a sports writer, she started writing human interest and news pieces, and loves to find hidden stories in her community. Sarah interned at a newspaper this summer and hopes to continue writing in college and beyond. She is excited to step into her role as an editor and read the great stories that get published this year.

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