The Netflix teen drama 13 Reasons Why has been trending everywhere around the world since its broadcast in March 2017.
The series is based upon the 2007 Jay Asher novel of the same name, which was a New York Times bestselling book. In this fictional story, teenager Hannah Baker dies by suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes that reveal 13 reasons why she ended her life. The traumas she experienced involved slut shaming, social isolation, bullying, sexual assault and missed opportunities - and Hannah lets those "responsible" know how they failed her.
While many see this as controversial, 13 Reasons Why offers some good things.
First of all, 13 Reasons Why has opened the door for families and communities to discuss life as a teenager in the 21st century. Specifically, the kinds of social pressures that occur for some children and teens - the micro-aggressions found in hallways, school buses, lunch rooms, online and otherwise, as well as traumatic issues of bullying, social injustice, sexual assault and suicide.
13 Reasons Why has catapulted the subject of suicide to the forefront. Not only are teens talking to other teens about this series in record numbers, but families, schools and communities are discussing this show. Professional organizations, mental health associations and suicide prevention websites have created talking points to help teach facts about suicide.
This is good.That being said, now comes the bad.
According to Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in adolescents aged 15 to 24, and is the 3rd leading cause of death in children ages 10 to14. While13 Reasons Why is a story about a young teen's suicide, it does little to teach about mental illness. And this is truly bad.
Research shows that 4% of preschool-aged children, 5% of school-aged children, and 11% of adolescents meet the criteria for major depression - and no mention of depression or mental health issues were highlighted in any episodes. Vulnerable viewers who watch 13 Reasons Why may not understand that suicide is a preventable death, one, that 90% of the time, is the result of an undiagnosed or untreated depressive disorder.
13 Reasons Why also glamorizes suicide, with decorated lockers, pep rallies, students taking selfies by Hannah's locker, mysterious packages, audio taped travel hunts, and even flashback scenes that keep Hannah "alive" in the series. Research reports that depictions that romanticize suicide in these ways creates a contagious trend for copycat suicides.
Along a similar line, the sensationalized theme in 13 Reasons Why that a suicide will reform a sinner, soften a bully or change the character of another is seriously misguided. It's also reckless to suggest that suicide can offer vindication for wrongs a person has endured. The ones that are forever changed from a death by suicide are not your enemies, but your loved ones. And your parents, siblings and cherished friends will tell you, suicide shatters - and is a loss unlike any other.
While most suicides involve planning, the way Hannah crafted her tapes and structured her death in 13 Reasons Why is not a realistic version of suicide. Most depressed individuals experience a profound depletion in executive functioning and have poor impulse control. It'd be highly unlikely for a suicidal person to have the stamina, insight and presence of mind to create such an elaborate scheme like Hannah did.
13 Reasons Why also suggests that "others" were responsible for Hannah's suicide. While many characters needed to be accountable for their missteps and crimes, the show misleads the viewer, suggesting that Hannah's choice to die by suicide was caused by others. It was not.
It was caused by illness. Mental illness.
While I've highlighted some of the good and the bad that's been spurred by 13 Reasons Why, there remains one ugly truth. Season 1 of this series did not have any input from mental health professionals or suicide prevention experts. Data has long shown that the way suicide is portrayed in the media can do enormous damage.
News of 13 Reasons Why being picked up for a second season is a golden opportunity for producers and writers to address the concerns mental health professionals, suicide prevention advocates, educators, parents and communities have about this show. By consulting with health professionals and technical advisors, this show can shift from the dangerous and provocative to the teachable and the factual.
And save lives.
If you are suicidal, are in crisis or know someone who is, there is help.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-TALK
Suicide & Depression Hotline – Covenant House: 800-999-9999
Suicide Prevention Services Depression Hotline: 630-482-9696
The Samaritans: 0845 790 9090
Dr. Deborah Serani is a psychologist, an adjunct professor at Adelphi University and an award-winning author.