Disclaimer: If you or someone you know is in crisis, there are resources available to you. Canadians should visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention if you are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you’re located in the United States.
If you’ve been paying attention to the media as of late, you may have heard of Netflix’s new original series 13 Reasons Why. There has been a lot of speculation about this show since it was released, most of which has come from parents showing concern towards their children watching it. If you don’t know already, 13 Reasons Why is about a high school girl who committed suicide after being bullied at school and going through a number of difficult times.
As someone who does suffer from mental illness (you can learn more about that in my post Drowning in the Stigma of Mental Illness), I wanted to know exactly what all of the hype was about. I was interested to weigh in on the topic on here, so last week I took it upon myself to watch the entire series (there are 13 episodes, all of which I finished in three evenings). I want to share with you exactly what my thoughts were about the plot, the characters, and how this story with so much potential will actually affect the way we advocate for mental health. Before we get into that though, I will give a brief summary of what the show is about just to give some context. Disclaimer: spoilers will occur, so if you haven’t watched it and are going to or you just really hate spoilers, then you may want to skip this post.
13 Reasons Why
As stated above, 13 Reasons Why follows the story of a high school girl, Hannah, who committed suicide after experiencing a lot of hardship in the span of a short period of time. Before committing suicide, Hannah records 13 tapes, each with a reason as to why she decided to kill herself. Each tape is directed at a different person who hurt her in some way or another. She sets things up so that each person who is mentioned on one of the tapes has to listen to all 13 tapes, so everyone on the tapes knows what everyone else did to her.
When Hannah’s best friend Clay receives the tapes, he’s extremely confused about why he’s on them. He was in love with Hannah and is still mourning her loss when he receives the tapes, therefore finding it incredibly difficult to listen to her reasons for killing herself.
Through hearing each of the tapes one by one, we learn that Hannah was a victim of bullying, was betrayed by her best friends, was called names, was raped, and was witness to horrible acts of violence, just to name a few. We learn that she didn’t feel worthy of Clay’s love because of all that she’s experienced, which is why Clay was included in the tapes.
As a new character is revealed on each of the tapes, we learn everyone’s back stories and all of the difficulties that they have faced. Each character has their own reasons for doing what they did and we gain a lot of back story about their mental health as well. There’s a common theme of facing hardship and struggling throughout the plot.
What I Liked About the Show
First off, I just want to say that I think it’s fantastic that there’s even a show surrounding the topic of suicide to begin with. Though it happens far too often, suicide isn’t an easy subject to talk about. This is exactly why we should be talking about it.
One of my favourite things about 13 Reasons Why is that it portrayed Hannah’s character in such a real way. Have you ever noticed that a large majority of people who commit suicide were seemingly happy people beforehand? That’s not to generalize, of course, but at least in my own experience in dealing with suicide it always seems to be those who seemingly have everything going for them. Hannah’s character is portrayed in a way that she has a social life, a caring family, a best friend who loves her, just to name a few things. She seems quite strong-willed throughout telling the stories and gets through a lot of crap before she hits her point of no return. She seems to genuinely care about the people in her life. It’s unfortunate, yet true, that some of the happiest looking people are the ones who are suffering the most.
On the same subject, I loved that they made an effort to portray those around Hannah having no idea what was going on. We can see from the outside that the signs were there, but for those around her they weren’t clear enough to be noticed if they weren’t looking for them. This is such a real struggle, because again, not all people who are depressed or suicidal appear that way. It’s important to know the signs and be able to recognize them when they come up in those who we care about in our own lives.
A lot of people are also speculating about the scene where Hannah slits her wrists in the last episode. The majority of people seemingly feel that this was just for shock value and that it was unnecessary. While I do agree that the scene may be triggering for someone who is struggling with feelings of suicide, I actually think the message being portrayed there is incredibly important. Suicide is not glamorous. It is shocking and disturbing, and it’s incredibly difficult to talk about, let alone witness. But it’s a very real issue. We can’t just shut our eyes to it just because it’s upsetting. That’s exactly why we should be acknowledging it, gory details and all. Acknowledging suicide fully is the only way to understand it and therefore prevent it from happening to those we love.
What I Didn’t Like About the Show
While I did enjoy the show, I do have some issues with it. The main thing I want to talk about here is how Hannah’s suicide was portrayed as a revenge plot. The problem with this is that when someone commits suicide, they’re not around to see the aftermath. My concern with this part of the plot is that the finality of death wasn’t accurately portrayed, which may lead those suffering with suicidal thoughts to believe that death isn’t as final as it truly is.
I also feel that they could have gone further into depth about the supporting characters’ mental health situations. For instance, we know that Clay was once on medication and that his mother wants him to be on it again (which is a whole other issue that I’ll get into), but I feel like they could have gone into so much more detail with that. The same thing goes for when we find out about Justin’s abusive home life – why did they not dig deeper?
Another issue I have with the show is the way that the adults (parents, counsellor, teachers, etc.) dealt with not only Hannah’s suicide, but the other kids’ compromised mental and emotional well-beings as well. The example stated above where Clay’s mom orders him his old prescription and tries to get him to take it again as if medication is a magic fix for sadness. Like, I’m sorry, but that’s just completely unrealistic. The other thing that bothered me in this sense was the scene with the counsellor talking to Hannah literally hours before she commits suicide. He not only seems to have no idea how to handle the situation, but he fails to recognize that this is a student in crisis and even goes as far as to victim blame her when she tells him that she was raped. These scenes are setting up false pretences about how mental illness should be dealt with.
How 13 Reasons Why will Affect Mental Health Advocacy
Like I said earlier, I think it’s fantastic to have a show that focuses in on mental illness (particularly depression and suicide as well as bullying). I think the intentions were all there and there are a lot of positives about the show. That being said, I think there was ample opportunity to take that even further and dive into the depths of mental illness without creating the false beliefs that I stated above. It would be interesting to see if they did a season two what criticism they would take into consideration and try to implement next.
Thank you so much for reading this post! Have you watched 13 Reasons Why? If so, what were your thoughts? Do you agree with what I’ve said, or do you have different opinions? Let me know in the comments below! For further reading, you can check out my last post, Budgeting 101: How This Millennial Saves Thousands of Dollars Per Year, or check out another mental health related post, Drowning in the Stigma of Mental Illness.