Netflix’s presentation of 13 Reasons Why has been out for well over a month now, and the response has been controversial, to say the least. While critics and viewers praised the performances and applauded the series for discussing an often-taboo subject, a backlash occurred from parents and educators. Almost immediately, some began to defend the show, accusing the detractors of being “too sensitive” or “overbearing”; to the fans, the uproar was no different than controversial media from decades past.
I’m here to explain why that dismissive approach is wrong.
This critique is not about helicopter parents “shielding their children from reality” or conservative educators censoring the media. Many complaints against 13 Reasons Why come directly from the mental health community and are based on very real psychological concerns. For several reasons, this presentation of suicide may have the opposite effect intended: instead of helping people understand suicide, it could cause harm to those already suicidal.
So please, sit back, listen, and try to understand why counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals are concerned with this show.
(NOTE: The following is not conjecture, uninformed opinion, etc. These points are supported by knowledge of psychology and human behavior, discussions with professionals, and actual cases.)
Hannah is portrayed as a victim rather than a responsible party
We understand that external factors are what pushed her to this end. This point is important for many viewers to understand how their behavior can drive someone else to suicide.
The problem is, a focus on the external is the opposite of what most therapy teaches to prevent suicidal behavior. Proper suicide prevention does not externalize a person’s decisions on environmental or social factors; therapy encourages empowerment through internalized choice and responsibility. A person may be a victim of bullying, assault, rape, etc., but they are taught that they still have the power and can make positive decisions.
13 Reasons Why works against this approach, making the protagonist appear the helpless victim. She’s not really shown as being responsible for anything, especially her final decision. Sadly, this speaks to some individuals out there, who believe they are helpless, have no control, and live in despair. Some clients have even blatantly stated that the show reinforced their belief that suicide is “not their fault.”
Hannah is portrayed as “winning” in the end
Yes, she lost her life, so most would consider that a tragic loss. The problem is, she gets exactly what she wanted: everyone feeling guilty and blaming themselves for her death. So, in a way, she is shown as “winning” by having her message heard and leaving everyone else emotionally distraught.
Again, that is the opposite of what counselors and therapists promote in their suicidal clients. Vengeance is never a positive thought or behavior, and that’s essentially one of the motivations behind suicide. Clients who wish to retaliate against those they feel have wronged or ignored them may see Hannah’s end as a victory.
Hannah’s plan is presented in precise detail
13 Reasons Why provides a plan for anyone watching it who wants to commit suicide. Certainly, if someone is dedicated to the idea, they will find a way; many potential suicides, however, are derailed when there’s some effort required. The individual doesn’t follow through if they’re confronted by obstacles or uncertainty.
This show, on the other hand, provides a road map without any concern. The series provides reasons, milestones, ideas, and even the exact method. While it’s true that a suicidal individual could find this information anywhere these days, the show packages it all together and in an entertaining format. Don’t believe someone would copy this? Then I guess it was pure coincidence when, according to an anonymous source, a client “mysteriously” became focused on making 13 video tapes… and their parents wondered where the idea originated.
Hannah’s suicide is portrayed sensationally and without regard to the effect
A lesser known secret about news media is that certain suicides are kept quiet; they are either not mentioned at all or with given minimal detail. The reason for this approach is because broadcasting the event may inadvertently cause copycats. After all, if making your voice known and retaliating against others are key motivators, what better way than to be on the news?
There was a very real correlation between media’s haphazard portrayals and details and increases in similar events. The health industry pressured the media to temper their words (or not mention anything at all) and discovered that the copycats decreased. This same relationship exists today with mass shootings, and there has been a large push to remove mention of the suspect and downplay the incident. Removing a tool for those in search of revenge, fame, etc. is one way in which restricting media helps the public.
13 Reasons Why failed this approach by presenting this material without considering the ramifications. What if someone watching the show was suicidal? As we’ve seen in the previous points, real clients have had good therapy reversed by the show and manifested mimic behaviors. They eventually included warnings, but is that enough?
13 Reasons Why fails at ethical responsibility
We realize people will watch what they want and that you can’t censor (eliminate) a topic. There is some support for the idea, however, that media holds some ethical responsibility. If you’re going to approach a sensitive (and potentially dangerous) topic, you either need to do so with forethought or make it clear that your show is just drama.
The issue isn’t primarily that 13 Reasons Why portrays a teenager’s suicidal plan in a detailed and graphic manner. The problem is that the show does so while claiming to be an informative discussion piece for suicide awareness. Would you claim Last House on the Left is an “educational conversation on rape awareness”? Perhaps Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas should be presented in drug awareness events at high schools?
An ethical production would not promote a dramatic story of suicide, wherein the message runs contrary to everything therapy states, as “helpful” for suicide awareness and prevention. Anyone is free to create their version of a topic however they see fit, but they still hold some responsibility to not present the subject in a misinformed and potentially dangerous manner. Otherwise, the show borders on propaganda, promoting a misleading point-of-view that can lead to deadly consequences for some.
13 Reasons Why is certainly a discussion piece for suicide, but for all the wrong reasons. The show presents the suicide in the worst possible way, showing suicidal individuals as victims of outside forces who “win” by dying and gaining revenge. The author and producers were correct that they need shows to broach the taboo and help understand the underlying causes. What we don’t need, however, are shows that proclaim to be helpful yet potentially make things worse, whether providing the wrong guidance or even the material for imitation.
Please, as a mental health advocate, I ask that you do not use this show to educate people on suicide. Especially if you, or another viewer, have suicidal thoughts or tendencies.
UPDATE (5/1/19): Almost two years after this article was written, studies on suicide rates appear to confirm precisely what experts and professionals warned.
A study by the National Institutes of Health showed a 28.9% increase in adolescent suicides after the show aired. The month immediately after airing showed the highest numbers and the entire following year retained a significant rise in suicide.
An earlier, smaller study initially concluded a decrease in suicide rates after the second season. Those researchers, however, warned that viewers who only watched part of season two showed higher risk and more negative emotions.
Either way, although no direct causation has been found (other than the case studies we mentioned years ago), experts did discover a high correlation. 13 Reasons Why has some form of relationship with increases in suicides and most professionals continue to warn against allowing sensitive individuals (especially teenagers) from watching the show.
UPDATE (7/16/19): Two and a half months after studies suggested the series’ graphic depiction of suicide might be responsible for an increase in incidents, Netflix has taken a step to listen to advocates. The first season’s notorious 3-minute scene was edited out of the currently available stream, drawing praise from numerous professionals and organizations.
Although the move was applauded, the fact that the series remains on the air (with many of the problems listed above) and that Netflix is planning a third season, suggests the producers still don’t fully understand the poor decisions and full effect of the series.
If you, or anyone you know, is contemplating suicide, please call 1-800-273-8255.