13 Reasons Why on Netflix: Does it really glamourise suicide?

It's worth considering whether a spike in calls to mental health helplines is necessarily a bad thing

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The Independent Culture

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions – and for many, that seems to be the case with  Selena Gomez’s new television series, 13 Reasons Why

Critics have accused the show, which centres around the suicide of a teenage girl, of “glamourising” suicide, with some mental health organisations warning that the series could have detrimental consequences for vulnerable viewers. 

At a first glance, it’s not hard to see why the show has sparked such strong backlash. 

13 Reasons Why takes a hard look at suicide from the perspective of a teenager who gives a wholly honest and unforgiving account of what she has endured. But as someone who binge-watched the entire first season in a matter of days, I saw little glamour in the protagonist Hannah Baker’s story. 

And after watching it, I would argue that the real trouble people have with 13 Reasons Why isn't that it glamourises suicide – it’s that it justifies it.

Suicide is an act that society has long been trained to condemn – and we like to believe that we can write certain realities out of existence by erasing them from our scripts, novels and portrayals of everyday life. 

And yet, suicide rates continue to rise, with a 2017 Samaritans study finding there were 6,639 reported suicides in the UK and Republic of Ireland in 2015 alone. And in England, female suicide rates have been at their highest in a decade. 

13 Reasons Why sets itself distinctly apart from other portrayals of suicide in the media by sharing a narrative that seems to justify the act, without attempting to highlight the consequences of it.

After being the victim of bullying, sexual harassment and, finally, rape, Hannah finds herself coming to the conclusion that suicide is the only way to escape her pain and isolation. She attempts to reach out to a guidance counsellor, but leaves his office feeling failed by the school system. And, in the end, she decides to leave behind 13 cassette tapes for 13 different people that she holds responsible for motivating her to take her own life. 

The first season of the series ends with an unsettling conclusion – the victim refuses to apologise for her death and the weight of her decision to end her life is left exactly where Hannah placed it – squarely on the shoulders of those she feels brought her to her breaking point.

It’s far from the message we have been conditioned to repeat to each other during times of need: “It gets better.” “Suicide is a choice.” “This too shall pass.” 

And when it doesn’t “get better”, society tends to estrange the actions of victims of suicide posthumously, holding steadfast to the belief that suicide is “never the answer”.

Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation, Headspace, recently published a statement on its website warning about the show after it received “a growing number of calls and emails directly related to the programme” following its March debut on Netflix. 

The foundation urged school communities and parents to “be aware of the dangers and risks associated for children and young people who have been exposed” to the series. 

I would agree that anyone who watches 13 Reasons Why should approach the show with caution – it’s a potentially traumatic series that should come with strong trigger warnings. Despite setting out to raise awareness around suicide prevention, it doesn’t take a stretch of imagination to see how the creators of this series could, in fact, inspire the opposite of the show’s intended effect. Young people who may have experienced suicidal thoughts, but viewed the act itself as unimaginable, have now been exposed to a graphic portrayal of suicide that does render it imaginable after all. 

But, for me, each episode of 13 Reasons Why transported me back to my own high school days: A boyfriend who tried to take his own life when he was just a couple of years younger than the fictional 17-year-old Hannah Baker. He spent weeks in the hospital recovering after overdosing on household drugs – and doctors told him if his parents hadn’t rushed him to the hospital, his actions likely would have cost him his life. 

It transported me to two years after that, when I started at a new school, where a student had recently succeeded in taking his own life. I remember how his death was shrouded in silence. There were no posters raising awareness around suicide prevention, as there were at Hannah’s high school in the wake of her death, and there were no discussions about how to “spot the signs” or how to reach out should thoughts of suicide ever begin to creep into your own mind.

It’s worth considering whether a spike in calls to Headspace and other helplines is necessarily a bad thing. Could it be that 13 Reasons Why has helped some young people identify their own feelings and feel inspired to share them? And might this series help some victims shift some of the shame and stigma that still seems to be associated with suicide just enough that they feel they can come out in the open with their worst fears?

We live in a day and age when it is still breaking news when Prince Harry “reveals” that he sought therapy after the sudden and tragic death of his mother. It shouldn't be news that a human being required support after an incident that would leave any family shattered. 

Society still has a long way to go as far as the discussion on mental health goes. And while I still struggle with the question of whether the ends justifies the means with a show like 13 Reasons Why, I do think it’s worth considering why shining a light on the bitter reality of suicide is so dangerous. Is it because it’s a topic that is not meant to be touched – or it because we simply haven’t talked about it enough?

Need help? Call Samaritans on 116 123