The Netflix breakout show “13 Reasons Why” has been praised for its binge-worthy, dramatic storytelling. But mental health experts warn that its thrilling narrative devices also make it problematic.
The story, which is adapted from Jay Asher’s best-selling novel of the same title, follows high school student Hannah Baker as she posthumously narrates the months leading up to her death by suicide. Hannah leaves behind tapes for people in her life that detail how their nefarious actions ultimately led to her decision. The 13-episode drama also vividly depicts the method Hannah used to end her life.
Mental health advocates say the show should not have shown Hannah’s suicide and have spoken out about the potentially harmful nature of the show.
“I have watched the show and was horrified at the graphic, sensational ways in which they depicted Hannah’s life,” Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, told The Huffington Post. “Viewers can understand someone who dies, even by suicide, without having to be so graphic.”
A Netflix representative has addressed the criticism, telling The Washington Post that four mental health professionals consulted on the show’s material. And the episode involving detailed scenes related to suicide comes with a warning.
The writer of that episode, Nic Sheff, wrote in Vanity Fair that he was “surprised” by the backlash. He said the show’s staff attempted to handle suicide sensitively, pointing to his own suicide attempt as inspiration for his writing.
Netflix also produced a bonus episode titled “13 Reasons Why: Beyond The Reasons,” which includes information on mental health and ways to get help. But the narrative episodes themselves, which arguably have a much larger audience, don’t offer resources or ways to reach out for help.
And, unfortunately, the problems don’t end there. Here are some other ways mental health advocates say the series could be damaging.
The show’s target demographic has a growing suicide risk.
The series does a disservice to its main audience: young women.
Suicide is a growing issue among adolescents, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published last year that measured suicide rates from 1999 to 2014. Girls between the ages of 10 and 14 saw the greatest rise in suicide rates during this time period ― a staggering 200 percent.
Vulnerable people who are in this age range may see themselves in Hannah, Reidenberg said. Teenagers with mental health disorders may struggle to be taken seriously. They could be seen as “dramatic,” or their behavior could just be attributed to their life stage. But mental health is a real issue, and the way suicide is portrayed in “13 Reasons Why” may trivialize that fact.
Hannah’s death scene could inspire copycat acts.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has ethical guidelines that warn against this type of storytelling. These rules are specifically geared toward journalists, but anyone who produces content for a wide audience should take them to heart because copycat acts can ― and do ― happen.
Mental health experts fear the show could inspire such actions.
“This scene does not help public awareness about the topic,” Reidenberg said of the depiction of Hannah’s suicide. “It is not educational or informational.” Instead of dispelling myths about suicide, he said, the show could lead people to replicate similar acts.
Research supports this claim: National Institute of Mental Health studies have found that the risk of suicide increases when specific details of the method are divulged publicly. They essentially give vulnerable, at-risk consumers a “how-to” guide.
Suicide is painted as an act of revenge.
The show barely even mentions Hannah’s potential mental health issues related to her horrifying experiences with sexual assault and bullying. Instead, the way Hannah’s death and the subsequent tapes are shown makes it seem like her suicide was a tool for revenge on the people who wronged her.
More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Ignoring that fact and sensationalizing death by suicide can lead to major misconceptions, Reidenberg said.
“Suicide is the terrible end to suffering with a mental illness, hopelessness and despair,” he explained. “Suicide is not about getting your locker to become a permanent memorial where people will take selfies in front of it ― that isn’t real.”
It relies on the narrative that young women overly care about reputation.
Not addressing the main character’s potential mental health complications could send the message that concerns about social status were the catalyst for her death.
Reidenberg points out that more adolescent males die by suicide than females, but attempted suicide is more prevalent in females. And given that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people, it’s important to spread accurate information about the issue and highlight examples of recovery from mental health issues, he said.
And that’s exactly what the critiques of “13 Reasons Why” boil down to: Although the creators made a concerted effort to bring awareness to an important issue, the portrayal was questionable.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the
Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free,
24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please
visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database