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13 Reasons Why "13 Reasons Why" Isn’t Getting It Right

Why the Netflix series doesn’t help prevent suicide.

As I’ve watched commentary explode on the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, I’ve hoped someone would write a “13 Reasons Why 13 Reasons Why Isn’t Getting It Right” post. But, since I can’t bring myself to watch 13 Reasons Why, I didn’t think I was that person.

And yet… I’m finding myself reading a lot about what others think about 13 Reasons Why and noticing some themes. So, I’ve distilled those ideas into a list. For those who haven’t heard of the series, it is based on a novel by the same name and portrays high schooler Hannah Baker, who makes 13 cassette tapes for the 13 people who she feels are responsible for her death by suicide.

So, here are 13 reasons why 13 Reasons Why isn’t getting it right — at least as far as it comes to suicide prevention:

  1. 13 Reasons Why focuses on a narrow narrative that implies that bullying leads to suicide. No one thing leads to suicide, and many people who experience bullying (or sexual assault, or any of the other very challenging experiences Hannah faces) do not go on to attempt suicide.
  2. Because it presents this relatively simplistic narrative, and as Anna Silman writes in SELF, “despite devoting 13 hours to the subject, 13 Reasons Why offers very little insight into the psychology of suicide.” Silman goes on to ask, “Who was Hannah Baker before everything fell apart, and why did the particular cruelties of high school hit her with such irreparable force?”
  3. Suicide is not, as middle school teacher Elizabeth Peyton writes, the ultimate “‘eff you’ to all the people you leave behind.” Yes, people who are affected by a suicide will remember the person who died. But, suicide does not exact revenge.
  4. Some, such as Ijeoma Oluo, have described the series as “the ultimate fantasy of teen suicidal ideation,” and there’s something to that. The problem with that ultimate fantasy is that it’s just that — Hannah’s life cannot be changed by her death, and because she takes her own life, she doesn’t get to find out the end of her story.
  5. What people are remembering about the series, as Oluo’s teen son said, is that it “really showed how bad things can get, and how cruel teenagers can be… It highlighted the impact that teenagers can have on each other.” This is not a message of hope or empowerment. It’s a message that has quite terrifying implications when presented without guidance for parents, teachers, and other adults involved in the lives of teens.
  6. To that end, 13 Reasons Why doesn’t show what people can do to help prevent a suicide death. There isn’t any one thing, but there are a lot of things that can help provide support for people with suicide risk. As MollyKate Cline writes in Teen Vogue, “the audience is shown what not to do without examples of what they actually should do.” Imagine if all of the 13 Reasons Why viewers got to see an adult doing a good job of supporting a teen in crisis, or another teen saying, “I’m here for you and will go with you to get help.”
  7. It’s possible 13 Reasons Why is contributing to new ways for teens to think about suicide — and not in a prevention-minded way. A friend who is a therapist reached out to me this week, wondering if I’d be writing about the series. She told me that one of her clients, not knowing that her therapist had also watched the series, came into a session describing her symptoms in a way that was “vastly different than I’d ever heard her regularly express. As her therapist, I have curiosity around whether 13 Reasons Why gave her new language to use to describe her experience, curiosity about how the series may have validated or invalidated her own experience, and curiosity about how her depression and suicidal ideation may or may not have shifted in the absence of watching the series.”
  8. 13 Reasons Why can be very hard, even traumatizing, to watch. (This is why I haven’t watched it!) There are ways to tell a story about suicide that are compassionate and do not trigger high levels of emotional distress. 13 Reasons Why graphically portrays an act of suicide, a portrayal which is not safe for viewers and does not fit within best practices for media representations of suicide.
  9. 13 Reasons Why portrays the idea that a lot of thought goes into a suicide attempt — like, so much thought that one would have the time to make tapes about all of the ways that they have felt wronged. Though taking one’s life is often considered for a long time by those struggling with suicidal thinking, the process that Hannah engages in is not reflective of what people most often experience when they are thinking about suicide. As Dr. John Ackerman writes in a blog post, “It is unrealistic for someone, especially a teenager in the midst of an emotional crisis, to construct an elaborate series of tapes all the while maintaining a sarcastic, witty, and glib tone towards people she blames for her decision to end her life.”
  10. A common reaction of adults to 13 Reasons Why is fear: Fear of what is really going on for teenagers today or fear that a teacher’s or counselor’s actions may a teen enough to influence them to attempt suicide. Fear tends to shut people down and leave them feeling like there’s nothing that can be done. Inspiring hope, by showing how adults can be supportive of teens facing the kinds of experiences Hannah faced in her school - like bullying and sexual assault - is a more effective way to prevent suicide.
  11. A lot of people want to be supportive of 13 Reasons Why because it could open up further needed conversation between adults and teens about suicide. But, Mir Kamin, who read the book alongside her teenage daughter, suggests: “If your child is experiencing some depression or harmful thoughts, then you might want to skip this series [emphasis added] and read the book together as a way of opening dialogue.”
  12. The only person truly responsible for Hannah’s death is Hannah herself. As someone “left behind” by my father’s death by suicide, I have faced the truth that, no matter what anyone in my father’s life did to offer him support or to try to prevent him taking his life, he did make this choice. There is no blame to place. Decisions to attempt suicide are made when a person is influenced by mental illness and psychic pain and cannot see another way out.
  13. As suicide prevention advocate Dan Reidenberg said on Good Morning America, "The show doesn't talk about mental illness or depression, doesn't name those words.” By presenting suicide as the only option in Hannah’s situation (we know the ending from the beginning), 13 Reasons Why doesn’t tell the much more common story of people living with (struggling with, but living with) difficult emotions and experiences and figuring out, with support and help from others, how to survive.

Because it doesn’t feel good to present 13 arguments against something without at least one note of positivity, one thing that’s good about 13 Reasons Why is that it’s opening up awareness and conversation about issues that are typically hard to talk about, especially between adults and teens. Though there are many ways it doesn’t get it right in terms of suicide prevention, 13 Reasons Why is hitting the cultural mainstream at just the right moment to push an important issue into the spotlight.

Copyright 2017 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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