‘13 Reasons Why’ dramatizes serious topic: suicide

Review

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Kylie Yamada, Feature Editor

Suicide notes often serve to answer a particular question: why? In the new Netflix series “Thirteen Reasons Why,” a young teenager answers this question — after her death.

The series, based on a book written by Jay Asher, portrays Clay Jensen, a teenage boy who receives seven cassette tapes narrated by Hannah Baker, a girl from his high school who has recently committed suicide. The tapes depict the 13 reasons why Hannah was driven to suicide — and everyone who is listening is one of the reasons. The show follows Clay as he retraces the steps of Hannah’s life and watches his high school react to the tragedy.

The story is intended to convey a simple message: any negative action can drastically affect someone else. Many of the people who are one of the “reasons why” had good intentions, but their careless behavior helps push Hannah to her breaking point.

Hannah’s reasons display a variety of high school situations and issues, ranging from objectification to slanderous rumors to sexual assault. Her story is about her own experiences, but the broad themes of the show are applicable to many teenagers.

However, the series also adds new plot points to the story. The novel focuses primarily on Clay listening to the tapes; the show adaptation expands the roles of several of the other characters. Clay often goes after the people in the tapes to ask them for their side of the story, and multiple flashbacks flesh out the context of all the incidents. A subplot involving a lawsuit between Hannah’s family and the high school is also added.

“Thirteen Reasons Why” paints a clear and detailed picture of Hannah’s life. The audience feels her shame, her betrayal, her despair. Her suicide scene is graphic and incredibly difficult to watch. Hannah is also portrayed as multidimensional, as her reliability is questioned at some points.
Not everyone is completely entranced with “Thirteen Reasons Why.” Although the series never depicts suicide in a positive light, it serves as a dramatization of very serious and difficult topics involving young characters and many people consider its drama detrimental to its message.

Hannah’s mental health is never seriously considered despite 90 percent of suicides being a direct result of mental illness. The trauma she describes in the tapes could easily result in her developing depression or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but those possibilities are ignored.
Instead, “Thirteen Reasons Why” focuses on the dramatic events of her life, which is more entertaining but less realistic. Some of her reasons are common to high school life, but much of the show’s plot is exaggerated for entertainment value.

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (S.A.V.E.), a U.S.-based nonprofit, has publically spoken out against the series.

“There is a great concern that I have … that young people are going to over identify with Hannah in the series and we actually may see more suicides as a result of [‘Thirteen Reasons Why’],” executive director Dan Reidenberg said in an interview with ABC News.

One worrying possible side effect of the show’s popularity may be a rise in suicides. S.A.V.E. as well as several school districts have sent out “talking points” inspired by the series and encourage teachers to hold discussions in their classrooms involving suicide and bullying. Some of these talking points emphasise that suicide is not a romantic act and that teenagers should talk to friends and adults about their problems.

The graphic detail of “Thirteen Reasons Why” has also caused worry among mental health professionals. Although the specific episodes have trigger warnings at the beginning, Hannah’s suicide is shown in detail and it is widely known by viewers as one of the most upsetting scenes in the show.
In Australia, the youth mental health foundation Headspace reported a sharp rise in phone calls from teenagers who reported that the show triggered suicidal thoughts.

The show also depicts adults as being essentially useless in helping Hannah. At one point, Hannah tries to go to a teacher at her high school to explain what has happened to her recently but he fails to help her properly. Instead, he tells her to move on with her life and informs her that she has no chance to be taken seriously.

Many viewers believe this portrayal misrepresents reality and discourages teenagers from reporting concerns to adults; the scene is one of the more contentious parts of the series, especially for adults who want to encourage suicidal teens to be open about their feelings.
“Thirteen Reasons Why” may depict a sensational and tragic view of suicide, but Hannah Baker’s story exists as a lesson to many people: remember to treat others well because you never truly know everything about a person.