13 Reasons Why: Media’s responsibility toward mental health

Netflix’s newest series, 13 Reasons Why, follows Clay Jensen as he listens to 13 sides of his friend Hannah Baker’s suicide tapes. The series attempts to bring light to suicide among teenagers by sending the message to ask for help when you need it and be kinder to others because you never know what someone is going through. Instead of teaching these positive skills, the series comes across as insensitive, ineffective and grossly misinformed. This results in a poor representation of the mental health community on a major streaming service, which is bad news for at-risk individuals and the community as a whole.

The first and most important point for those contemplating suicide to remember is that committing
suicide means your own story will end in death. Because of the tapes, Hannah’s story does not, and this dramatization is harmful and detracts from the series’ intention. Not only is this desensitizing obvious, but it also does not allow the audience to see that people are deeply affected by her tragic death because of the constant use of the tapes and flashbacks. It is as if Hannah never died. The audience hardly sees grief apart from Hannah’s parents.

By leaving these tapes behind, Hannah is able to live on past her death and present a one-sided story of the events leading up to her suicide. This is unrealistic and unhelpful, and is a talking point created about the series by SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education). They warn that leaving messages beyond the grave is impossible. The show romanticizes the concept of the tapes, sensationalizing their “got the last word” attitude. Those who die from suicide die; they don’t have the opportunity to live past their deaths.
Going back to Jay Asher’s 2007 novel from which the series originated, the entire concept of the tapes is fucked up. Hannah essentially forces these young people to listen to the tragedies they inflicted upon her. As SAVE explains, suicide is never the fault of survivors of suicide loss, but Hannah’s tapes seek to exploit her peers and intimidate them into guilt. Each side of the tapes has a story about a different peer. According to Dese’Rae L. Stage, founder of Live Through This, it’s important to remember that suicide happens for a variety of reasons, not just because of bullying. Other factors include lack of support, preexisting mental illness and isolation.

We wonder if her peers feel genuine guilt or if they care more about their reputation being damaged by the tapes than their previous actions. Who decides what is guilty enough? Apparently, Hannah Baker.
As someone who has previously been suicidal, I question the authenticity of the tapes: Not so much whether or not they tell the truth, but whether or not it would be possible for the Hannah Baker we see to create them. Suicidal ideation comes in waves, as far as severity goes. Some minutes are significantly harder than others, and sometimes suicidal thoughts appear to have completely evaporated. But according to the New England Journal of Medicine, 25 to 80 percent of suicides are impulsive. 30 percent make the attempt within five minutes of their ideation and 70 percent within the hour.

We don’t see that with Hannah. She is extremely calm while talking on the tapes, and I wonder if she was feeling suicidal while she recorded them. Whether or not she was, the tapes had to have been premeditated, meaning we should see some significant signs of suicidal ideation from Hannah. Suicidal ideation is when an individual has thoughts about how to kill themselves, varying from a fleeting thought to a more detailed plan, but does not end in committing suicide. We briefly see a note in class and we see one failed attempt of talking with a guidance counselor.

According to Mayo Clinic, typical signs of suicidal ideation include isolation, loss of interest in things one used to enjoy, crying spells, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, talking or thinking about death, saying things like ‘It would be better if I weren’t here,’ or ‘I’m not worth it,’ and planning to tie up loose ends.’ We see the tying of loose ends via the tapes, but we see no other signs of suicidal thoughts from Hannah. So why and how did she make the tapes?

The tapes begin with a confident introduction and a close up of Hannah’s locker:

“Hey, it’s Hannah. Hannah Baker. That’s right. Don’t adjust your… whatever device you’re listening to this on. It’s me, live and in stereo. No return engagements, no encore, and this time, absolutely no requests. Get a snack, settle in. Because I’m about to tell you the story of my life.”

But that’s not what we ultimately hear. Despite the promise of her entire story, Hannah becomes a flat, two dimensional image, consisting only of her tragedies and her vengefulness. We never learn her favorite things or what she likes to do outside of school. While we do learn she’s a writer, the characteristic is quickly used to humiliate her.

The two dimensional characteristics of Hannah are incredibly harmful because it reflects how suicidal individuals see themselves — as people who are less than whole. This is harmful to viewers who are experiencing suicidal thoughts because seeing themselves reflected on screen with such negative attributes is reaffirming in an incredibly unhealthy way. Hannah describes being angry with how the world works, a feeling that resonated with me and several other individuals I have met through group therapy sessions and hospital visits.

Reportingonsuicide.org offers several recommendations and do’s and don’t’s for creating media regarding suicide. 13 Reasons Why ignores several of these recommendations. Displaying suicide in such a way that “explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death” is not recommended because it can lead to “suicide contagion,” otherwise described as a “copy-cat suicide.” This essentially means one suicide contributes to another due to the way media constructs a previous suicide.

The website recommends avoiding any visual aids to describe methodology, or any mention of methodology at all. 13 Reasons Why chose to show a graphic suicide, which can be incredibly triggering for suicidal viewers. Popular arguments in favor of the show say the depiction creates awareness, and “hey, there was a trigger warning at the beginning of the episode.” The idea of a television show that has someone who may think like me as the protagonist is consoling — maybe I am not completely alone. However, seeing that person commit suicide in a way that is easy and accessible to me is dangerous.

How many other people have watched the inevitable ending to this series and felt hopeless? While it seems obvious that we cannot avoid Hannah’s death, we certainly can avoid such potently dangerous visualizations of it. Reportingsuicide.org recommends using a school photo and including hotline numbers. There are more innovative ways to depict a death than showing it — in fact, according to Jon Lewis’s American Film: A History until the 30’s, directors had to find ways to show some off screen deaths due to intense censorship. Filmmakers today can stretch their brain muscles a bit and find better ways to present suicide. In fact, Hollywood can find a better way to present mental health overall.

Throughout the series there is little discussion of depression or how to deal with suicidal thoughts. At one point, a teacher is about to recommend hotlines students can access, but a voiceover drowns her out. There are posters on the walls at school but they are not clearly visible to viewers. The guidance counselor practically blows Hannah off when she comes to him, and the note Hannah leaves in the class discussions bin anonymously is not taken seriously. Clay brushes off taking medication and returning to talk therapy, and his parents consider his strange behavior ‘acting out’ rather than a sign that something could seriously be wrong. One of Hannah’s peers shows up to school drunk regularly and the others spend their free time stressing out about these vengeful tapes — and nobody checks in on them. In short, there are a lot of negative situations happening, and no positive coping skills to deal with them.

Netflix is one of the first major production companies to make a series surrounding mental health. There are not many series that currently exist. Most television characters that deal with mental health issues tend to be depressed for a few episodes, and suddenly they are healed after encouragement from friends. An example of a television show that tends to do this is Degrassi: The Next Generation. However, some shows do an excellent job of portraying complex characters with mental illnesses. Examples include Community, You’re the Worst and Wilfred. How many of these shows have you heard of? Creating media about mental health is difficult — it is a different experience for everyone and it becomes near impossible not to step on someone’s toes in some way. The show had a few important, positive scenes, but not nearly enough to make up for the problems hovering over the series.

Representation is important. The show trivializes suicidal individuals and paints suicide as a glorified act used to make others feel guilty for a choice made by an independent person. For a show about mental health, the correct terminology (depression, suicidal, assault, mental health and other “basic” buzzwords) are not used.

The show should have noted that there is also more than one way to seek help. Hannah’s peers are left dealing with the tapes she left behind and experience more “complex” signs of mental illness than Hannah ever did. It would have been helpful to explore the complicated scenarios her peers are dealing with and see how they go down a different path than Hannah did. This is an opportunity to deal with grief and mental illness that Netflix missed entirely.

Those who claim that it is not Netflix’s job to educate the public on mental health are speaking from a privileged point of view where they are in a sound enough mind to not see their identity trivialized, tokenized and dehumanized on a major streaming service for all to see.

Hold Netflix accountable. Hold major media makers accountable. Demand proper representation. People’s wellbeing, and their lives, could depend on it.

For support when dealing with depression, suicide or the many things on that spectrum, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicide.org.

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