Netflix recently released a television series based on Jay Asher’s bestselling novel “13 Reasons Why,” which follows high school student Clay Jensen as he tries to figure out why classmate Hannah Baker committed suicide.
I was thrilled to begin watching the series but quickly realized that this was not what I was expecting. These are the 13 reasons why.
It strays too far from the book. This is the simplest reason why, but for those of us jazzed about seeing a television representation of a brilliant novel, it was seriously disappointing. The added plot lines and unreasonable characterization of Hannah as a vindictive young woman seeking revenge ended up being more “Pretty Little Liars” than a true adaptation of the book.
It was inauthentic. Personally, I never knew high schoolers who dealt with their grief or guilt by going on week-long benders filled with booze and weed. Or high schoolers with more tattoos than I, a 22-year-old woman, have even considered having. Overall, what I’m trying to say is that if producer Selena Gomez and the writers were going for an authentic story about real problems plaguing our nation’s teenagers, maybe they should have observed our nation’s teenagers.
There is a constant theme of victim-blaming. I’ll talk about why it is one of the most harmful things the show does later, but I’m speaking here specifically about blaming victims for being bullied. A licensed counselor asks a student, “what might you have done to provoke bullying?” Not only does this create an aura of mistrust around counselors who are there to help, it gives off the vibe that bullying, in any form, is justified.
It is an unhealthy depiction of coping with loss. Clay goes around, brooding, shutting out his parents and anyone trying to help. The school is concerned more with the lawsuit than with helping students to heal after the tragic event. In the very real events of teen suicide, it’s important for students to have healthy role models to help them, and also a school administration and faculty that encourages students to open up. In reality, if any school were to handle the suicide of a student like the school in “13 Reasons Why” does, the ramifications would end up being equally as serious as the death itself.
It emphasizes harmful grouping practices in school. I am under no illusion that there aren’t cliques in every high school across America. My problem with the cliques in the show is that they function more like gangs. Characters Bryce and Justin seem to run a team of enforcers bent on making sure Clay doesn’t finish the tapes. They do everything from forcing him to drink an entire 40 ounce bottle of malt liquor to shoving him into a car and taking him speeding down city streets at 100 mph just to scare him into silence. This reason connects back to inauthenticity, but ultimately it normalizes these incredibly dangerous grouping practices that the administration in the show simply turns a blind eye to.
There’s no example of successful help-seeking. This connects back to No. 4 on this list, but it’s a little more serious than that. As per usual, the counselors depicted in the show are airheads who are either too chipper and concerned about the wrong things or wrapped up in what the administration wants rather than focusing on what the students need. Not only is there no model for successful help-seeking for students in the aftermath of Hannah’s death, there’s no model for those struggling with mental illness seeking help.
It simplifies issues of suicide and self-harm. Mental illness is much more complicated than a cause and effect relationship. The series only depicts the outward influencers of Hannah’s suicide, not the internal thoughts and characteristics that might have actually lead her there. Bullying does not lead to suicide the same way a gunshot leads to bleeding or death. There are really complex factors that also play a part and over-simplifying them can be very dangerous.
It depicts suicide as selfish. Just like people can die from cancer or other terminal illnesses, people die from mental illness as well. Simply because it’s self-inflicted does not mean it’s selfish, “the easy way out” or any other harmful stereotype that the show perpetuates.
It perpetuates the myth that someone is to blame for suicide. No one is to blame for suicide, not even the person who commits the act. Suicide is a result of a complicated combination of many different factors. No one person, or group of people, are to blame for a person committing suicide. It is possible that bullying, assault and other things people have done might have contributed, but it’s never their fault.
It devalues individual experiences of bullying and suicide. Individual experiences with bullying and suicide are going to be different, but none of them are any less impactful. Especially when we are talking about bullying experiences, treating someone’s bullying as just “playground roughhousing” or “boys will be boys” and otherwise turning a blind eye only perpetuates the problem, like we see in the show.
It doesn’t talk about mental illness in adolescents. Over 90 percent of suicide deaths have links to mental illness and approximately one in five teenagers will experience mental illness of some form during their adolescence. Instead of focusing on these issues though, the show focuses on Hannah’s social life and how that drove her to suicide. People looking to see an accurate depiction of real mental illness are better off looking somewhere else. I’m not saying that the things that happened to Hannah in the show weren’t contributing factors, but this young woman was clearly dealing with mental illness and the show breezed right past it.
It demonizes those suffering from mental illness. Hannah is portrayed as vengeful, vindictive and selfish. Students actually dealing with those things are already going through a cycle of self-hatred and low self-esteem, but to have those feelings confirmed by a TV show is another thing altogether. Many students are going into this show looking for a character to sympathize with and a true portrayal of what they are going through. Instead they get another voice, this time from popular culture, echoing some of their most poisonous thoughts.
It ignores the guidelines on safe and responsible depiction of suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has published extensive studies on the effects of responsible depiction of suicide and “13 Reasons Why” completely disregards them. Not only does it disregard these guidelines for suicide, it also includes a violent rape scene. The show graphically depicts Hannah cutting her wrists and bleeding to death. There is absolutely no need to show Hannah actually committing suicide; it is enough to talk about it. This show and its producers had a responsibility to its viewers and instead possibly exacerbated existing mental illness.
After watching “13 Reasons Why” I felt like I had to call my mom and apologize. Apologize for having depression, for self-harming to cope and for trying to seek suicide as a solution to the pain and agony I had been feeling with no way out. This is not the way I wish I had felt after watching the show. I wanted to feel affirmed, like this might have been the depiction that would show people what I and so many others go through and how a person’s life is while they live with depression, bullying and suicidal thoughts. Above all, “13 Reasons Why” is a toxic, irresponsible depiction of mental illness and suicide and under no circumstances am I recommending it to anyone.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts please seek resources from the university counseling center, The Trevor Project, The Mighty or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The views expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The Torch.