Despite being one of Netflix’s most popular original series, 13 Reasons Why has some troubling implications about depression and suicide, both in how it portrays the topic and how thoroughly it portrays the act of suicide. The binge-able 13 episode series, based on Jay Asher’s 2007 best-selling book Thirteen Reasons Why, is about a high school student, Hannah Baker, who commits suicide after being bullied. As her suicide note, she leaves 13 cassette tapes for people in her life to listen to. The focus character is Clay, a friend of Hannah’s who had romantic feelings for her. The series has mostly received positive reviews from both audiences and critics, having a surprisingly broad audience. While the show is targeted at young adults, many adults have become interested in the show, especially as it addresses important but often neglected topics such as mental health.
While it is to the show’s credit that it is willing to tackle touchy subjects—namely teen suicide and the effects of bullying—the accuracy and safety of the material must also be brought into question. The show likely has made these topics more visible, perhaps helping people be more aware of mental illness in their own communities and more informed about when and how to get help, but in some ways the show glorifies suicide even as it speaks out against it. Many people who struggle with suicidal thoughts are attracted to the idea that after they’re gone people will finally notice them, miss them and feel sorry for the treating them poorly. In 13 Reasons Why many of these fantasies come true, and while the show deconstructs some of this by showing how false the attention can be as students claim to be more connected to and saddened by Hannah’s death than they are, ultimately it seems that her plan to make people understand her is somewhat successful.
It’s worth noting that the way the fictional school deals with student suicide diverges from how real schools handle it. The show begins with a scene where students snap selfies in front of Hannah’s shrine-like locker. In real schools extended memorials are taken down and oversized tributes are avoided because they can make other students dwell on the tragedy in unhealthy ways or glamorize suicide. Spontaneous memorials, such as Hannah’s locker, are allowed for only a few days after the funeral (whereas in the show it has been a longer period of time since Hannah’s death). Aside from this, the way that the teachers and guidance counselors in the show go about encouraging students to talk about it or look for signs in other people doesn’t fully mesh up with reality either, as it seems that they are trying to elicit emotional reactions from students instead of simply giving students opportunities to express their thoughts and feelings.
Arguably, the show is dangerously naïve in its understanding of suicide, especially with the gruesome suicide scene that shows Hannah slitting her wrists in her bathtub. Many healthcare professionals are saying that 13 Reasons Why, especially the suicide scene, is an irresponsible portrayal. In discussing and portraying suicide, it’s important to know about the “contagion effect,” or the likelihood that once people have heard about or seen someone else’s suicide or suicide attempt, there will be copycat deaths. Young people who already have suicidal thoughts might actually be encouraged by the show despite its efforts to show that Hannah didn’t go out peacefully. On the other hand, if properly addressed, the show does give a valuable opportunity for parents and people who work with young adults to discuss suicide risk and teach them to identify warning signs of depression in their friends and peers.