The teenage drama, partially produced by mental health advocate Selena Gomez, has taken the social media sphere by storm. It has surpassed previously popular shows such as Orange is the New Black, and has been named the most talked about series on twitter.
Since airing around two weeks ago (and in true Netflix style, with all thirteen episodes being released the same day), the emotional drama has struck a chord with teens and adults alike. The program is not perfect; in fact, it has been the target of many criticisms about how it portrays certain aspects of teenage suicide. However, you cannot disagree that it highlights some hard-hitting issues that have previously been skirted around by the media. 13 Reasons Why provides a comforting outlet and a learning base for many of our depressed young people around the world.
As a sufferer of depression and anxiety in the past, I am always overjoyed when something that actively discusses mental health comes into the media limelight. Whilst stigma around the subject is thankfully reducing, it can still be hard for a young person to open up and talk about their feelings, and even harder for those who don’t suffer from depression to recognise the signs and offer help. It can be confused with teenage angst, hormones ‘acting up’, or simply seen as part of growing up. All too often though, these warning signs do manifest and go on to lead to something tragic.
13 Reasons Why deals with this subject in a nuanced and sensitive manner. Hannah, the main character, leaves a set of thirteen cassette tapes behind after her suicide, each explaining why she killed herself and who influenced her decision to take her own life. We are taken through the present time, with her friend Clay listening to the tapes, while also being shown flashbacks of what happened to Hannah to lead to her death. Without giving away too many spoilers, the show also combines issues of rape, child abuse, and addiction. Whilst some of the episodes are perhaps a little too dramatic and overworked (critics have said that the series could have benefited from less episodes), the intention shines through. This isn’t a high school where the students’ main focus is on finding a date for the dance. The series deals with real issues outside of the classroom, ones that we know actually affect many teens all over the western world.
One of the most effective, and highly criticised, scenes in the programme is the scene of Hannah killing herself. We witness her climbing into the bathtub, running a bath, and slitting both of her wrists with the blood and the severed artery clearly and graphically shown. She then slips into the water and is later found by her mother and father, another heart-wrenching moment that will drive many to tears. The suicide scene itself is uncomfortable. It is disturbing, one of those things you want to make yourself watch but that will ultimately make you recoil and leave you speechless. And this is a good thing — things like this do happen, more and more so, to our young people and increasingly to our teens. Confronting the audience with such an explicitly tragic scene makes us sit up and take notice; it could be happening to someone at this moment in time.
I have read articles by others who have denounced the scene as an example of glamorizing suicide, something which does more harm than good when it comes to mentally unstable teenagers. However, I have also read the twitter stream and the countless posts by people who have claimed that the show has helped them open up and talk about their depression with greater confidence. As I’ve said, the show isn’t perfect — it doesn’t explore deeply enough the roots of depression, placing a little too much blame and responsibility on peers and family members. However, in the age of social media where young people are increasingly comparing themselves to each other and celebrities alike, and where cyber bullying has taken teenage nastiness to a whole new level, the influence of peers and family members can in fact make all the difference.
Certainly the plot has been dramatized. Some characters are overplayed and there is an aspect of the whiny teen coming through … but at least it’s a start. At least we are finally beginning to see a nuanced, largely popular and well-received initiative of representing depression in the modern age.