“13 Reasons Why” Not

I haven’t watched much television in awhile, let alone even typed Netflix into the search bar. But when lots of people are talking about a new Netflix series, with varied opinions to say the least, I am curious.

This series is 13 Reasons Why. I actually remember the original young adult novel the show is based on, a random copy found in my high school freshmen health class, conveniently mentioned when vaguely discussing suicide. To keep summaries brief, a girl named Hannah Baker committed suicide, and a classmate later found 13 tapes, each with her talking about a person, or “reason”, she ended up taking her own life.

If you ask me if I’ve read the book or watched the show, my answer is no. And that answer isn’t changing. Yes, this is inspired by a real suicide attempt but is still a work of fiction, but we all know how creative liberties might skew, romanticize, and dramatize any bit of information out there. I see this as no exception.

The ironic thing about how people are talking about this show, I rarely hear people actually talking about preventing suicide. If Netflix thinks that 13 Reasons might start up a healthy conversation about mental health, this is not the way to do it. In a drama like this, suicide is less of a tragedy and more of a mysterious plot line.

Both related and unrelated to 13 Reasons, on social media and even in general conversation, I don’t like how people talk and joke about death and suicide. Suicidal thoughts have become jokes, normal reactions. It’s not absurd for a teenager to wish they would die or get hit by a car to avoid taking a test or doing a task. So if everybody is normalizing suicide and killing yourself is an appropriate reaction to make, what happens when somebody is serious? When they aren’t just “kidding” about wanting to harm themselves? When they actually attempt something dangerous, or worse, succeed in doing so?

Even experts are deeply concerned that the book and the show may have the opposite of that intended awareness-raising effect and may impart viewers with the wrong takeaway lessons. Ultimately, the entire premise of the story goes against all accepted best practices for how to address suicide responsibly in the mass media. According to journalism ethics and suggested guidelines, here are some recommendations regarding suicide:

  • Don’t sensationalize the suicide.
  • Don’t talk about the contents of the suicide note, if there is one.
  • Don’t describe the suicide method.
  • Report on suicide as a public health issue.
  • Don’t speculate why the person might have done it.
  • Don’t quote or interview police or first responders about the causes of suicide.
  • Describe suicide as “died by suicide” or “completed” or “killed him/herself,” rather than “committed suicide.”
  • Don’t glamorize suicide.

I can personally relate in this situation, as an executive staff member of my college’s newspaper trying to decide how to report a suicide committed on campus. It was tricky. We ultimately followed the family’s wishes to keep everything very private, but I was proponent in the discussion for being open about the situation. I do think we need to talk about suicide more to make it less taboo and more acceptable to ask for help, but there’s a right and wrong way to do it. And 13 Reasons breaks every single one of the ethical recommendations.

By exploiting Hannah’s suicide, or any suicide, it portrays suicide as something else entirely. It becomes a means of revenge and gaining control over others, even those of may have been treating someone with the best intentions. It becomes a reasonable coping mechanism for despair and hopelessness. It’s a new, glamorous way to get attention. It’s proof that the world has done you wrong, that even parents and guidance counselors are out-of-touch and inept helping young people with their struggles. If this is what the suicide conversation is turning into, especially when it involves young people still learning and thinking Hannah Baker’s story of avoiding life is realistic and reasonable.

Another big problem I have with 13 Reasons is the premise of blaming others for suicide. Each of the 13 tapes depicted in the story are focused on one person who hurt or abused Hannah. If that doesn’t make others feel beyond guilty, I don’t know what would. But the underlying cause of suicide is not others’ actions, but mental illness. Experiences like bullying and sexual abuse are traumatic and can trigger the downward spiral, but pinpointing those as “reasons” is no justification for a fatal decision. When someone does wrong to you, your first reaction should not be to kill yourself. Playing a blame game helps nobody.

I cannot tell you how many posts I’ve seen warning people about the triggering images in 13 Reasons. Apparently the final episode includes a graphic depiction of the actual suicide. Just the thought makes me cringe. Does such a scene show how suicide is painful, or how to complete it for those who aren’t mentally well enough to see something like that?

13 Reasons has become the most popular, viral show Netflix has ever released. And with all the discussion surrounding it, I want us to be honest and direct with the show’s message and themes. From what I’ve seen, the book version of 13 Reasons sounds like a much better platform for portraying understanding teenage insecurity and hostile school environments. However, whether you read or watch 13 Reasons, remember this: suicide is a choice that cannot be encompassed in 13 audio recordings. It’s not an effective means to solve your problems. It shouldn’t fall entirely on others’ shoulders to bear. It stems from mental illness. It hurts the loved ones around you. And people are out there to help you.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie


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