TW: This article discusses sensitive issues such as sexual assault, self harm and suicide- reader discretion is advised.
For better or for worse, 13 Reasons Why has scarcely faded from the forefront of pop culture in the year since the first season was released. The show is a Netflix original, following the events that lead to the suicide of Hannah Baker, the programme’s protagonist. It has attracted controversy for its somewhat haphazard handling of the issues it intended to draw awareness to; with mental health, sexual assault and substance abuse spanning the TV show’s 26 episodes and two seasons.
Many concerned parents and mental health professionals have criticized the show, particularly a number of potentially triggering and ‘excessively graphic’ scenes throughout the series.
A number of mental health professionals, such as the National Association of Psychologists, have raised concerns over the show’s potential harm towards vulnerable individuals, citing a phenomenon known as ‘suicide contagion’. The idea behind this concept is that direct exposure to suicide or depictions of suicide can create an illusion of normalization or acceptability; and that already vulnerable individuals may begin to romanticize the actions of the characters on the show.
This is especially prevalent in the case of 13 Reasons Why — the series has been blamed for a number of ‘copycat suicides’ that were comparably similar to Hannah Baker’s death at the denouement of season one. The case for the media’s role in increasing suicide risks is further supported by the revelation uncovered by JAMA Internet Medicine — that in the weeks following the release of the show’s first season, google searches for ‘how to commit suicide’ rose an estimated 26 per cent. The study also admitted that these searches do not prove suicidal ideation. However, there is an undeniable and concerning link between irresponsible discussion of suicide in the media and unfortunate cases of premature death.
13 Reasons Why has also attracted infamy for a series of ‘excessive and detrimental’ rape scenes, including one depicting mutilation and extreme violence. In response to this, many critics (including myself) have branded the show’s producers as irresponsible — such depictions are known to be triggering, especially to survivors of sexual assault, and have invoked reactions such as nausea and panic attacks among consumers of the show. In response to backlash, the series’ creator, Brian Yorkey, stated that ‘talking about it is so much better than silence’. This response is mirrored throughout the series — and whilst the creators’ intentions may have been wholehearted, the show has been dramatized to the point where such messages are lost in the senseless brutality of the depictions.
The show also has an issue with romanticizing the events it discusses, as well as portraying them as acceptable solutions to problems that vulnerable teenagers face on a daily basis. This first arose in the first season, where many argued that Hannah Baker’s suicide was not shown as the result of a long battle with depression or any other mental illness but rather as an act of revenge — and conveyed the message to teenagers that their beauty will only be truly realized after their death; an extremely dangerous message. This reckless and irresponsible portrayal continues into the second season, with Tyler Down’s story arc being the pinnacle. Through violent sexual assault and continuous bullying, the viewers witness his transformation into a school shooter that is easy to empathise with. It implies, to frustrated outcasts, that gun violence is a viable way to enact revenge on your tormentors.
However, a single solution is difficult to present. Mental health issues are extremely important to discuss, as long as they are presented in an appropriate and non-idealistic manner. A potential example of this is a fellow Netflix original, the 2017 film To The Bone. Dealing with the topic of eating disorders, it is gruelling and realistic but at no point is anorexia or bulimia made to seem beautiful or admirable; this is partly due to the directors taking the stories of actual sufferers into account — in contrast to the creators of 13 Reasons Why, who actively went against those they spoke to.
It is important to have discussions; but graphic depictions are simply irresponsible ways to go about them.