Five years and four days ago, I lost one of my mentors to suicide. Steven was in his final year of law school when he took his life. Since his passing, I’ve become quite open about mental illness, and the stigma that comes along with it. I now work with a mental health non-profit. We use person-first language, where we emphasize the person and not their illness. We say things like “die by suicide” instead of “commit suicide”, as the latter criminalizes the action of taking one’s life.
So, you can imagine my bewilderment when I heard about the premise of the show ’13 Reasons Why’. This now-trending Netflix show, released on March 31st and based off the young-adult novel by Jay Asher, is about a high school student who ends her life. She leaves behind audiotapes with her own voice recorded, which she uses to blame her own death on classmates and a school counselor.
In addition to being a survivor of suicide loss, I am also an older sister to a high school student (who is in the target demographic for the show). The other day, I found myself reaching out to my younger sibling to see if she had heard of the show. As it turns out, she had actually read a few chapters of the book, and even seen a few episodes of the TV show, before deciding to stop. I’m so glad she did not finish the book, nor the series. I reminded her that I am resource for her, whether that’s serving as someone to confide in, or even serving as a conduit to other forms of help. However, I fear for her and her peers.
In case you were considering binge-watching ’13 Reasons Why’ on Netflix, I strongly advise against it. Additionally, if there are teens or young adults in your life raving about it, or potentially being exposed to it, you need to check in with them immediately. They may be watching it alone, without adult supervision, and may be taking away an unintended message: suicide is acceptable. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While the show has started conversation around suicide (positive among Hollywood, negative among mental health professionals), it ultimately fails the demographic whom it targets. From all of the reviews and articles I’ve read, including a detailed summary of the TV series, I cannot get myself to actually watch the show. I will not watch the show.
Here are thirteen reasons why:
- Not once is mental illness mentioned. The show can seriously affect those with diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health conditions.
- Suicide is romanticized. The show glamorizes suicide in a way that may be, unfortunately, appealing to some considering self-harm or suicide.
- Suicide is displayed in an extremely dangerous way. In the show, there is a graphic scene of Hannah Baker as she ends her life. These types of depictions can be very triggering for those with suicidal thoughts.
- The show does not provide a viable alternative to suicide. The plot is presented without any messaging to the audience that actually lowers the risk of suicide.
- The show opens the door to suicide clusters amongst vulnerable youth. When a suicide occurs on a school campus, it can generate a lot of media attention (both on the news and on social media). It can also lead to suicide clusters, or multiple deaths by suicide that occur close in time and proximity.
- Revenge is fantasized. The portrayal of suicide as a method of revenge is irresponsible, especially for young teens who face bullying, abuse and discrimination on a regular basis. In a sense, suicide as a method of revenge is inadvertently condoned by the show.
- Sexual assault and rape is dramatized for entertainment. This can also be very triggering for those with painful, traumatic experiences.
- Seeking help is stigmatized. The scene where Hannah is dismissed by her counselor without getting the help she needs can prevent students from actually confiding in school counselors, teachers, administrators or other trusted adults.
- The show does not serve as a suicide prevention tool, as it may have been intended to. The producers, one of whom includes Selena Gomez, essentially miss an opportunity to educate their audience. They fail to provide resources for those who need it.
- Producers claim to have consulted with four mental health professionals. However, that guidance is clearly left out of the show.
- The show fails to follow safe messaging guidelines around portrayals of suicide in media. Those behind the show clearly missed the mark on how the media contributes to teen suicide. As a result, they contribute to those negative narratives.
- Blame and guilt is placed on suicide survivors, or individuals who lose someone to suicide. In each episode, a different individual is identified as one of the reasons for why Hannah takes her life. For those who survive a suicide, it is important that they know that they are not at fault. This is critical.
- The show can be particularly triggering for those who have lost someone to suicide. This one is self-explanatory for me.
Suicide is much more common than we may think. A study by the National Center for Health Statistics revealed that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Furthermore, for every suicide that occurs, 25 people attempt to end their life.
Yes, suicide is prevalent. We need to talk about it. However, this doesn’t mean that it should be portrayed in the media in an irresponsible manner. It should be done with the audience in mind. It should highlight risk factors and warning signs of suicide. It should demonstrate proper research from several experts in the mental health field. It should provide resources, like who to reach if you are in crisis.* It should not romanticize suicide in a way that could be harmful to those with a mental health conditions.
*Are you (or is someone you know) in crisis or contemplating suicide?
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They connect you with local crisis centers that are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Trained counselors are available from anywhere in the United States, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.