Ruth Linehan examines the worrying depiction of mental health issues in Netflix's newest hit show.
For those of you who haven’t finished, or are yet to start, the Netflix original '13 Reasons Why'; this contains spoilers.
For those of you who have completed the 13-hour drama; read on.
For those of you who have no intention of watching the show; let me catch you up.…
'13 Reasons Why' is an American high school drama adapted from Jay Asher’s book of the same name. We follow protagonist Clay Jenson as he works his way through 13 cassette tapes, recorded by Hannah Baker (Clay’s love interest), depicting why she committed suicide. Each tape centres around one person from Hannah’s life who she felt had hurt her in some way, ultimately leading to her mental demise and death. Not light-hearted viewing.
The show, which was released in late March, has catalysed a prodigious conversation amongst the online masses and media. From the light-hearted memes to more serious posts, the poignant themes of the show are undoubtedly a major talking point.
Once you get over the cheesy American teenage dialogue (Disclaimer: “FML forever” is said more than once), '13 Reasons Why' is a good show (just behind Narcos in IMDb’s ratings…Vive la Netflix). Nevertheless, creating a “good show” wasn’t the only thing on the producers’ agenda; they apparently wanted to start a conversation, regarding the themes tackled in show, amongst the public.
The raw approach the show takes to the themes of rape and sexual harassment is well done, in my (not so expert) opinion. However, the theme of mental health…?
In a TV show about why a teenage girl decided to end her own life, the theme of mental health should be paramount. So why is Hannah’s mental illness not once addressed by any of the characters throughout the entire series? We are presented with this illusion that Hannah’s suicide was just a dramatic revenge aimed at her rapist, bullies and fickle friends; a downright twisted depiction of mental health.
Never mind the impressionable youth; a supposedly educated journalist for the Chicago Sun Times described the suicide as “selfish” in an article I read the other day. This opinion is a worrying trend amongst people discussing the show.
I get it, Hannah placing blame on her peers for her death, on the surface, seems selfish. Nonetheless, the show focuses on an oversimplified cause of Hannah’s death. Suicide is death due to an illness, and for the show not to highlight and emphasise that is beyond negligent.
Selena Gomez, who was an executive producer on the show, recently spoke in a press conference about how last year she herself suffered with significant mental health issues, resulting in her being admitted into rehab for 90 days. This just makes it even more bewildering how the good intentions of the show’s producers manifested their way into creating a finished product that is, quite frankly, an insult to anybody who has ever suffered from suicidal ideation.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there is an average of 121 suicides in the US every day. Furthermore, for every 1 death from suicide, there’s 25 reports of attempted suicide. Irish statistics aren’t much better, with the Central Statistics Office reporting that there is an average of 498 deaths from suicide in Ireland every year. With these kind of statistics, we cannot afford to be ignorant anymore. Suicide is not “selfish”, it is not revenge, it is death from an illness.
Hannah Baker was a victim of bullying, of rape and, most importantly, she was a victim of the malfunctioning neurochemicals inside her head. If losing your battle with depression is “selfish”, then I guess people who die from other neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, are selfish too…just produce some dopamine goddammit and quit tremoring. (A drastic, verging on ignorant, comparison by me there, but I hope the point is clear).
The circus that follows Hannah’s suicide is so enchanting and animated that you become nonchalant to the graveness of what happened to Hannah; what has happened to so many people and is continuing to happen every day. There is one scene in the show however, where for a moment, the situation is real.
The suicide scene has been widely criticised for being too graphic and “triggering” (I don’t even want to discuss how ridiculous the claims are that the scene presents viewers with a “step-by step how to commit suicide guide”). There is no denying that the scene is hard to watch, but in my opinion, it is the only few minutes within the thirteen-hour drama where we, the viewers, can see the real tragedy of mental illness and suicide. Watching Hannah’s mental anguish turn to physical pain and seeing the utter heartbreak of her parents discovering her lifeless body…I don’t think I need go on.
Criticism aside, one positive message is left at the end of the show, and that is the power of kindness. Nobody is responsible for killing Hannah. Nonetheless, if just one of her peers had shown empathy and compassion towards her, things might have been different.
Humility, kindness, compassion, empathy, patience.
You never know what somebody else might be battling. Can't we all just try to be decent human beings?