React! React! But don’t believe!

Trigger warnings: depression, suicide, rape, profanity

A recent show unveiled on Netflix has taken the world by storm. Based on a popular teen fiction book and made into a 13-episode series, the show has caused countless people to furiously tap on their keyboards to “win” an argument over the internet. We are, of course, referring to 13 Reasons Why, based upon the novel of the same name by Jay Asher. For the purpose of this post, I will be discussing only the screen adaptation.

How can one, very well meaning, show cause so much controversy? The point of creating a publicized and easily accessible version of the story was to raise awareness.

If you have not read the book or watched the show, I’ll give you a quick rundown: a 17-year-old girl named Hannah Baker commits suicide after a chain of misfortunes and abuse from other people. Before her death, she records her 13 reasons why she killed herself on cassette tapes, each tape focusing on a different person. The set of tapes is passed up the chain of perpetrators until it reaches protagonist Clay Jensen, the only one on the tapes who helped rather than harmed. The series follows Clay as he unveils the truth about Hannah’s motivations.

Last night my best friend finished the series and immediately started a conversation with me about it. I finished the series a couple of weeks ago and have since spread it to several friends as well as my mother and sister. If you’ve started it but not yet finished, I advise you to stop reading now so I don’t spoil it. I find it to be a beautifully done representation of depression and mental illness.

Others do not agree.

From school superintendents (Wilson & Redmond, 2017) to psychologists and mental health professional (Bowerman et al, 2017), 13 Reasons has been demonized as glamorizing and encouraging suicide. Opponents suggest that it does not talk about resources available to suicidal teens and thus at-risk teens who watch it will want to commit suicide.

To this I say one thing: bullshit.

A bit of background: I’ve been depressed for roughly nine years now. I’ve had general anxiety disorder for five. I’m currently on four medications for these conditions. I attend therapy. I did not seek help in high school. I didn’t tell my family that I was depressed until I drove home and collapsed at my mother’s feet sobbing that I wanted to kill myself.

Oh yeah, that suicidal bit that the show revolves around? Yeah I get that. I’ve been off and on suicidal throughout my nine (super fun) years. That admission to my mother? That was in March. Of this year. In fact, I wager to think this semester I’ve been more suicidal than ever.

My best friend also has long term depression, anxiety, is on medication, goes to therapy, and has suicidal thoughts. She’s got one year left in her dual degree for psychology and anthropology and is doing all sorts of research and is extremely successful in both disciplines. In her own words:

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Suicide is a touchy topic but unfortunately I am not unfamiliar with it. I’ve woken up to voicemails that a friend was in the hospital after his sister called the police because she thought he was about to jump off the roof. I’ve gone to the school guidance counselor in tears because my friend told me he was feeling suicidal then didn’t show up for school for three days and didn’t answer any texts. I’ve sat with my boyfriend in a hospital ER after his third suicide attempt. I’ve driven to friends’ houses at 2 am because the tone of their texts was very worrisome. I’ve held my roommate as she cried recalling her suicide attempt and fear that she was starting to feel that way again.

The way the actual suicide was portrayed in the show was a little graphic. I don’t think it was necessary to have several scenes of Hannah bleeding out. Other than that, though, I’m inclined to say the creators did a damn good job portraying it. Those claiming that it romanticizes suicide I just don’t understand. What’s glamorous about destroying your parents? What’s glamorous about suicide clusters? What’s glamorous about others being driven to alcoholism and drugs because of your suicide?

This came up during my discussion with my best friend, of course.

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If you’ve never been suicidal, good. I really hope you never are. For those of you that have, I’m sure you understand the inevitability of death. The oppressive, crushing pain that makes suicide feel like the only option. In the throes of severe depression, suicide feels right. It feels like the right thing to do and completely inevitable.

As the course of our discussion shows, the series actually helped two suicidal people to be less suicidal. And that’s not just us, either. Every person who’s experienced suicidal thoughts and seen the show that I’ve talked to admits the same thing. The aftermath shown in the wake of Hannah’s suicide is a deterrent.

One character, Alex Standall, attempts to commit suicide himself at the ending of the show by shooting himself in the head. This was a boy who made a seemingly small mistake that had really impacted Hannah in ways he didn’t expect. His crushing guilt and anger culminated in this act.

Is this the romanticizing of suicide, then? Causing others to die? Or is it romanticizing because two characters have preventable deaths that no one did anything about? Alex didn’t just randomly commit suicide. There were signs throughout the course of the show.

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And yet people still didn’t care. 

In the wake of this horrible suicide, posters plastering the walls, teachers spewing off help line numbers, letting everyone know that “it was okay”, how did another suicidal student go unnoticed?

People didn’t care.

They were so entrenched in their own problems that they ignored other people had them, too. Hannah’s suicide rocked the seemingly-perfect school. How could anyone else in that place even think about suicide? Didn’t they reach their suicide quota?

The truth is that appearances lie. I lie, you lie, everyone lies to fit in and to be accepted and to hide their pain and weakness.

Showing pain isn’t romanticizing suicide.

So what about the other major criticism of the show, that it does not give adequate light to resources?

Also bullshit, and here’s why.

They missed it. Everyone missed Hannah falling into depression. Everyone dismissed the warning signs. Why would you plaster anti-suicide resources around a school when no one is suicidal?

Furthermore, Hannah did seek help. She went to the guidance counselor, who is pretty much the only accessible mental health professional for high school kids. That counselor completely ignored all warning signs and, worst of all, an admission that Hannah had been recently raped.

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This counselor was supposed to help. He was supposed to be a professional. Hannah reached out. She went to her resources. The resources failed her–and that’s an important part of the show. It shows that the system is imperfect. It shows that we need to re-evaluate how we see and treat mental illness, especially pediatric.

It’s true to real life.

Unfortunately.

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This is how mental health is treated. This is how we fail people. This is how the Hannah Bakers of the world die. This is how the Alex Standalls of the world die. This is how real kids die right under the noses of the faculty and their parents.

Hannah Baker struggled for over a year and a half. She tried to forgive and forget. She tried to make other friends. She tried to ignore the stares, the objectification, the gnawing pain at the back of her mind. She tried to get help. She tried to reach out and do the things she was supposed to do.

But the system failed her and all of the pain that had been building erupted. This wasn’t a rash decision. She thought about it, recorded tapes, made a map, and letters.

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This series calls for change. It sheds light on how we’re not handling mental illness and that we need to radically change the system.

Then why are people so up in arms about this show? Why are people hiding behind criticisms that can easily be refuted by actually watching and listening to the show and its messages?

Because they want mental illness to be an “us vs them” issue instead of a “we” issue.

Because overcoming depression is a moment of realization and a return to the normal. Its being strong. Its a thing of beauty, really, to return to being average.

Suicide isn’t. Suicide is cowardly and unimaginable. Suicide is a choice. Suicide makes you a freak.

Therein lies the issue. In a perfect world with perfectly average people, who would want to taint themselves with a freak? You can read about them in textbooks as a lesson on mental illness but when they’re portrayed in a lifelike way they become all too real and close. We make a spectacle of freaks all the time, even though we’d like to say we’ve moved past freakshows (Thomson, 1998). Horror movies about disassociative identity disorder, practically every murderer on TV, the twisted past of the last white school shooter–it’s all on display for our pleasure. Shaking our heads and chuckling at the fiction or literally calling mass shootings freak events.

Mental illness is a disability and one of the most popular ways to cope with disability is to ridicule it. If we put up these walls and maintain the delusion that teenagers aren’t thinking about killing themselves then we don’t have to address it. We can say that posters in hallways and one guidance counselor is more than enough. We can say that all of the resources work every time.

We can deny the fact that there are killer flaws that we’re too scared to even think about.

We can blame a book, a TV show, rap music, video games. Anything but ourselves. We don’t create freaks. We don’t support freaks. We sit in our perfect houses with our perfect families and perfect children that go to perfect schools and we all have perfect lives. Freaks only exist for entertainment. They’re not anyone we personally know, they’re not relatable, and if they’re not providing a positive experience they should be silenced.

We are responsible. We are failing. People die. And we ought to fix it.

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13 Reasons Why has exposed our shortcomings. It has shown that we have an issue to fix to people that may have never thought about it before. It is up to us to make schools a better place so that when a kid is bullied, they get support. So that when a kid is suicidal, they will be helped instead of hurt when they step foot in a counselor’s office.

Most of the kids in this series aren’t malicious. They’re making stupid, hurtful decisions. They’re 15, 16, 17 years old and haven’t had the life experiences needed to avoid these choices. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be held accountable, either, but this series also teaches teens the importance of their actions.

Those who are malicious, notably Bryce Walker the rapist, are shown to be likable. Popular. Captain of the football team. Good son of a rich family. Lots of friends. A typical, if not slightly douchebaggy, high school boy. Who in the staff and faculty would guess that this model student was partaking in drugs and alcohol, let alone that he had raped at least two girls and probably more? This is the face of many rapists in the world today. 45% of rapes are committed by acquaintances of the victim (RAINN, 2016). We shy away from that, too.

I applaud Jay Asher for writing this story and Netflix for making it even more accessible. It’s a much-needed wake up call with how we deal with mental illness, rapists, and suicide. The controversy swirling about it does nothing more besides publicize it further and (hopefully) spread the message.

Which is definitely not encouraging suicide.

Wish we weren’t so scared of freakishness to see that unabated. Wish we could believe it.

Emily Skjerve

Bowerman, M., Mitchell, G., & Haller, S. (2017, April 28). Psychologists warn ’13 Reasons Why’ could inspire copycat suicides. Retrieved from http://www.pnj.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/04/28/psychologists-warn-13-reasons-why-could-inspire-copycat-suicides/307592001/

RAINN (Ed.). (2016). Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/perpetrators-sexual-violence

Thomson, R. G. (1998). The Beauty and the Freak. Disability, Art, and Culture (Part Two), XXXVII(3).

Wilson, C., & Redmond, K. (2017, May 01). ’13 Reasons’: Schools warn about impact of controversial show. Retrieved from http://www.lohud.com/story/news/education/2017/05/01/netflixs-13-reasons-why-prompts-education-suicide/101024848/

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