TV Review: 13 Reasons Why Season 1

The argument that shows such as 13 Reasons Why ‘raise awareness’ for issues such as suicide and mental illness is a thinly veiled excuse for the irresponsible decisions made by the producers. Starting conversations about suicide is important, yes, but not if that conversation is being conducted in a way that puts people at risk.
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Netflix’s hit show 13 Reasons Why has been making headlines since it first came out in 2017, for all of the wrong reasons: the show perpetuates harmful myths about suicide and fails to provide hope or resources to viewers who maybe struggling with mental illness. Multiple copycat deaths have been linked to the series, yet Netflix continues to push forward with new episodes, tackling more controversial issues such as sexual assault and gun violence. Executive producer Selena Gomez argues that the show is “starting conversations” about bullying and suicide–but at what cost? Media giants such as Netflix have the power to start responsible, productive conversations about mental illness, but this show fails to do so.

In the show’s first season, a girl named Hannah takes her own life and leaves behind thirteen tapes, each one addressed to a different person. As each person listens to their tape, a new reason for Hannah’s suicide is revealed. She blames each of the thirteen people for her death for different reasons, and the community is left to deal with both the aftermath of her death as well as the impact of the tapes on the young people who received them.

The show was a smash hit, and soon became Netflix’s #1 most watched TV series of 2017. Mental health professionals quickly became concerned that the show’s central theme of “revenge suicide” and the graphic depiction of Hannah’s death would lead to a rise in suicide rates, due to multiple violations of safe media standards (Saint Louis, 2017). Unfortunately, evidence suggests that they were correct: a recent study published by JAMA Internal Medicine titled, “Internet Searches for Suicide Following the Release of 13 Reasons Why,” found that “all suicide queries were cumulatively 19% higher for the 19 days following the release of 13 Reasons Why, reflecting 900,000 to 1.5 million more searches than expected” (Ayers, Althouse, Leas, Dredze, & Allem 2017). A majority of the most-searched queries had to do with suicidal ideation, such as “how to commit suicide,” suggesting a risk for additional deaths by suicide. The evidence is not limited to internet searches, however: school administrators across the country reported an increase in self-harm and suicidal behaviors following the release of the series (Strauss, 2017). In a few tragic cases, families have linked the suicide deaths of their children to the TV show, stating that they took their own lives immediately after finishing the series and imitated the method in which the central character took her own life. Some went so far as to leave behind tapes in the same style as Hannah Baker.

Suicidal individuals are more likely to experience cognitive distortions (Jager-Hyman et. al, 2015), making them more vulnerable to irresponsible representations of mental illness and suicide in the media. Excessive coverage of a suicide death that describes the suicide means in detail–or depicts it visually, as with 13 Reasons Why–can be deadly, as it provides instruction as to how one can complete their own suicide. Mental health advocate and suicide attempt survivor Mark Henick argues that “these portrayals provide a cognitive pathway, a roadmap of sorts, that tricks the minds of those at risk for suicide into believing the lies that their mental illnesses tell them” (Henick, 2017). In some cases, the show may indeed be thought-provoking and serve as a catalyst for conversation. For someone who is struggling with mental illness and suicidal ideation, however, the show may serve as a catalyst for self-harm.

13 Reasons Why is a perfect example of everything the research suggests to avoid: graphic depiction of suicide being completed, the assertion of specific reasons for the suicide, and a failure to provide mental health support resources. The argument that shows such as 13 Reasons Why “raise awareness” for issues such as suicide and mental health is a thinly veiled excuse for the irresponsible decisions made by the producers. Starting conversations about suicide is important, yes, but not if that conversation is being conducted in a way that puts people at risk. The producers of 13 Reasons Why, along with journalists, news anchors, and other members of the media who choose to cover suicide, must recognize that while talking about suicide is necessary, the topic must be handled appropriately. If Netflix’s true intention was to start conversations about mental health, they would have addressed it explicitly in the show, rather than perpetuating a narrative that convinces young people that suicide is the only option. They could have invited empathic engagement by using their compelling storytelling skills to construct a narrative of resilience and recovery, rather than a narrative of destruction and pain.

Positive representations of mental illness and suicide are not impossible. Research shows that the media can actually play a role in decreasing suicide–or at the very least, avoid increasing suicide. In some cases, such as celebrity deaths by suicide, it may be difficult to avoid excessive coverage. It is possible, however, to mitigate–or even eliminate–suicide contagion by informing rather than sensationalizing, focusing on resilience and resources rather than pain and despair, and providing mental health resources to the audience.

In the United States alone, approximately 5,000 young people die by suicide each year. Research shows that approximately 5% of youth suicides are influenced by contagion (Gould & Lake, 2013). If media corporations were to take suicide contagion seriously and begin adhering to the recommended guidelines, 250 young people could be saved each year. When you factor in the impact that positive representation and the promotion of help-seeking behaviors has on decreasing our society’s stigma around mental illness and increasing young people’s awareness of resources, that impact is even greater.

At the end of the day, the producers of 13 Reasons Why seem to believe that they are saving more people than they are harming. But when people are dying and the positive effects of the show are ambiguous and unquantifiable, it is difficult to justify this stance. It is morally wrong to air a show that can trigger suicidal behaviors: the loss of human life should outweigh any other motivation to keep the show running. Even after the death of multiple fans, no action has been taken besides the addition of a brief advisory warning at the beginning of each episode.

While many people may have found 13 Reasons Why to be an “important starting point for conversation,” as Netflix has stated repeatedly, the line needs to be drawn at the loss of human life. We live in a world where we don’t always see the ramifications of what we do to others, but in this case it is clear: 13 Reasons Why violates nearly every existing recommendation for handling suicide in the media. There are simply not enough conversations about suicide in the media that are productive, accurate, and responsible. Suicide can and should be talked about in the media, in a way that encourages help-seeking behavior and provide options to those who feel that they have none. Media giants such as Netflix have the potential to influence millions of young people and shape their perceptions of mental health. Rather than perpetuating a narrative of hopelessness and destruction, media corporations can use their influence to address misconceptions about mental illness, provide resources for recovery, and save the lives of people who are struggling.

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Yorkey, Brian. 13 Reasons Why, Season 1, Netflix, 31 Mar. 2017.