As I lie on my handmaid blanket, watching the show “13 Reasons Why” for the second time through, I feel perplexed and at a loss for words. But that’s to be expected, isn’t it? It’s never easy to talk about suicide, slut-shaming, bullying, or any mental health issues — but it is necessary. My guess is that this is the one reason why there are multitudes of articles about the show. This recent Netflix original, based off the book released in 2007, has sparked more conversation about mental illness than I’ve seen in my 24 years on this planet. I doubt even the producers expected such backlash.
Let’s start off with discussing the positives, because I am a “good news first” type of girl. I was thrilled when I heard about the show, primarily because I have dealt with many of the issues it brings up but have rarely heard such topics discussed. I was slut-shamed after a negative sexual encounter; I have lived with depression since the age of thirteen, and I can recall events and people who worsened it from time to time; I loved a dear friend who committed suicide. I’ve asked “why?” more times than I can count, and sadly, I’m often met with silence. These tragic components exist in many people’s lives, and while we can’t change that, we can change how we respond to it. Unfortunately, most people choose not to respond at all.
Say what you will about “13 Reasons Why,” but the show accomplished one major success: it got people talking. As you watch Hannah Baker experience bullying and watch her slow but steady breakdown, you can’t help but think of people in your life who may be spiraling downwards into the same pit. And if you are like most, you conclude that you don’t know a damn thing about how to help, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The first step is recognizing that these are real issues which need to be addressed, and the next is learning how to address them. The show ends when Clay seeks out a classmate, Skye, who has clearly struggled with depression and possible suicidal ideation. At this point, Clay is able to recognize these signs and has made a definitive choice to do all he can to avoid the next tragedy.
Hannah’s suicide scene is a hard one to watch — the kind of scene I needed my husband’s hands over my eyes for. The producers steered away from the book for her suicide, and instead of pills, Hannah took razor blades to her wrists. You don’t need to be a mental health professional to know that this kind of thing is hard to watch. It’s terrifying…but what if that was the point? While most people are aware of mental illnesses and suicides, they don’t dwell on them and therefore, they don’t do much to improve them. The show wouldn’t have been as powerful if Hannah’s mother walked in to find her daughter seemingly asleep in her bed, whereas it was incredibly powerful and touching to watch Mrs. Baker fall to her knees next to Hannah’s lifeless body in the bloodied bathtub. It wasn’t supposed to be pretty or easy. I like to view it as a wake-up call to society that suicide is a prominent issue which we must come together on, and as they say, seeing is believing. The scene was meant to make you uncomfortable and to tug at your heartstrings, and hopefully, to make you passionate about suicide prevention.
Finally, the show brings up a point which is important but difficult to absorb: small things cause big impact. An innocent but provocative-looking picture of Hannah was sent throughout the school, and not long after, a list was sent around discussing her “assets.” She then dealt with unwelcome grabbing, staring, judging, and assuming which she neither deserved nor asked for. Small comments were made to Hannah while her mind was already weakened, and she wasn’t able to brush them off. She talks about how important anonymous complimentary notes are, how they kept her head above water for a while — and then talks about how hard it was when they stopped appearing. She directly addresses 13 people who either purposefully or unintentionally hurt her, in both small and big ways, when she was already hurting. The fact of the matter is that sometimes, simple gestures can cause a lot of harm. Some of us are so broken that a hairline fracture is what breaks us entirely and turns us to dust. I realize that many people don’t like to accept this because it means they’re held accountable for their actions, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Now, I think I speak for many in saying that the producers of this show made some major mistakes, the worst being (in my opinion) the lack of conversation about mental health. While I can sympathize with Hannah in saying that others contributed to her struggles, those people did not cause her suicide or her depression and hopelessness which led to it. According to The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric illness at the time of their death. Hannah Baker’s feelings of hopelessness, her likely PTSD from her rape, and her undiagnosed depression and suicidal ideation led to her death — not people’s mistakes. I wish the show would have addressed these issues, recognizing and validating mental illness for what it is, instead of making Hannah’s suicide an extreme form of revenge. The show makes an important point in saying that small comments and incidents can worsen a person’s mental stability, but it inaccurately portrays an idea that these actions cause suicide. You cannot cause another person to struggle with mental illness any more than you can cause another person to have the flu.
Coming from someone who has struggled for over ten years with mental illness, including depression and suicidal ideation, the best way to address it is by getting support. I used to think that was an easy out for parents and teachers, but being an adult who sought out professional help, I now know that it’s true. The show barely touches on this, aside from Hannah’s attempt to talk to her counselor (which turned negative in a heartbeat). I would’ve loved to see Hannah call the nearest counseling center, a real-world resource which is available to all those who are suffering. Even if Hannah didn’t take advantage of this opportunity, the show should’ve wrapped up a few episodes with a reminder that there is always, always, ALWAYS help out there. When you collapse on your living room floor after an exhausting day, when you cry yourself to sleep at night, when every little task feels like another mountain to move, you do have somewhere to turn. It isn’t easy, especially for young people, but I beg you: call the suicide hotline, call a therapist, send a text for help to a mobile app like Talk Space, or scroll through your contacts and get ahold of the person who best encourages you. It’s easy and somehow appealing to accept that you are alone and don’t need to let anyone in your bubble, but that’s a lie; fighting against mental illness is an impossible battle without your allies. Allies are around every corner with weapons to battle your fiercest enemies, even those who live in your mind — all you have to do is look.
In conclusion, I feel it’s important to acknowledge that some people can’t, don’t want to, or shouldn’t watch “13 Reasons Why,” and that is perfectly fine. If you feel that it may be triggering, difficult, or otherwise offensive to you, by all means, avoid watching these thirteen episodes — but please don’t stop there. There are countless ways to educate yourself on suicide prevention, support the cause, and start the conversation. If we all work together to end the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health, there will be a day when people who feel like Hannah Baker did will know where to turn. We owe it to our loved ones, our children, and to all future generations.