The title is where the problems start.
13 Reasons Why, a popular Netflix original TV show, has received a remarkable amount of attention since its release in March. The show has been lauded by some for sparking important discussion on mental health and suicide prevention, while others have expressed concerns over its glorified depiction of suicide.
The show follows the story of 17-year-old Hannah Baker, who leaves 13 tapes which record the “thirteen reasons” for her decision to commit suicide. The show is based on the book of the same name, by Jay Asher.
And the title is where the problems start.
It’s the word reasons that has health professionals concerned. The word, reasons implies that there is logic and method to suicide. It suggests that Hannah has a goal in committing suicide, that she could achieve – which, of course, is impossible. Yet the entire plot of 13 Reasons Why is based on people’s reactions to Hannah’s videos that detail her ‘reasons’.
Dr Steven Leicester, Head of Direct Clinical Services at Headspace, an organisation for youth providing online counselling and mental health services stated in a media release, “Young people who have experienced similar problems may start to view suicide as a reasonable option. Any feelings of distress are valid and warrant support, whether there is a specific reason for these feelings or not.”
The show, set in a high-school, is aimed at a young demographic. Selena Gomez, a Disney Channel star familiar to many viewers, is an executive producer on the show and a further drawcard for young women. The shared experience of high school increased the viewer’s likelihood of identifying with the main character. This identification between the viewer and the characters increases the risk of “copycat” suicide behaviour.
“The evidence is that particularly young people identify with the character who suicides in the media description,” said Professor Tonge, a specialist in child psychiatry at Monash University. “For example in Germany there was a spike in suicide rates after a TV series that dramatically depicted the death of a young man in front of a train.”
The show is already affecting young people. Dr Steven Leicester stated, “Clinicians working for the service had been dealing with a steady stream of concerned parents and young people since the show first aired.”
This is particularly concerning given Hannah’s experiences throughout the show, where her attempts to reach out for help are negative. It creates further barriers for this demographic to access mental health services, which are so crucial to their recovery.
The very platform 13 Reasons Why is presented on further exacerbates the problem of its content. Netflix is well known for its binge-watching phenomena, and binge-watching rates are highest among the at-risk demographic of young people. The show not only exposes viewers to highly emotional and potentially psychologically volatile content, but the viewer is immersed in it, clicking through episode after episode.
And it appears that Netflix designed the show that way. Everything about the show builds tension and is designed to keep you watching. The title. The names of the episodes. The opening shot of Hannah’s locker-turned-memorial. Hannah’s haunting voiceover speaking directly to the viewer, “Hey, it’s Hannah, Hannah Baker”. The near hour-long episodes. Everything. The show is a trigger-riddled trap, that gives the viewer no time to come up for air. According to avid watcher Niamh, the content is “addictive”.
“[The show] gives them the means to suicide. They then have no time to reflect, talk with friends, seek help and find positive solutions,” said Professor Tonge.
13 Reasons Why does not present suicide as a finality. The focus on the aftermath makes it seem that Hannah can achieve retribution and send messages from beyond the grave. “The series gives the impression that main character’s able [sic] to witness people’s reactions to her death and achieve her desired outcome,” Headspace clarified. “The show portrays suicide as a way to ‘teach people a lesson’.”
The heartbreaking reality is that Hannah is gone. She cannot witness the aftermath or change people from beyond the grave. This is romanticisation of suicide at its worst. “[The show] fails to demonstrate the permanence of suicide,” said Headspace.
You might just shrug your shoulders and say, don’t watch it then. But, firstly, we don’t all know how we are going to react to things, particularly at this level of graphic depiction. And secondly, Netflix has produced a phenomenon known as “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out). According to Sidneyeve Matrix, a professor of film and media at Queen’s University, people sometimes watch a Netflix show due to, “A fear of being the only person who had not seen the show and thus of being unable to participate in the fan community and conversations”. In the face of peer pressure and such widespread discussion of the show, we don’t always make the best decisions for ourselves.
Sure, some things have been done to minimise the impact of the show since its release. Netflix has introduced an extra behind the scenes video ‘13 Reasons Why: Behind the Reasons’ which has the cast justifying the show. Trigger warnings have been added to episodes.
But you’ve got to ask yourself, is it worth it? All that risk for a little entertainment, if that term is at all applicable in watching the inevitable suicide of a beautiful and talented young woman? “There is no evidence that the detailed media description of suicide and its methods has any part to play in the life of a mature and supportive society,” said Professor Tonge.
13 Reasons Why pushes the boundaries in many respects, including its depiction of mental health and sexual abuse. It’s certainly not the only medium which exposes young people to suicide but it is a uniquely potent concoction that represents the intersections of several relatively new media phenomenons. The show has undeniably promoted discussion on mental health problems and high school bullying, but we may never know at what cost.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact:
Lifeline on 13 11 14 or at lifeline.org.au
BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636 or at beyondblue.org.au
Kids Helpline (5 to 25-year-olds) on 1800 551 800
Words by Emily Grace