I’m not a big TV watcher. It’s hard for me to find the time and energy to dedicate to a series. I’ll get into one for a little while, and inevitably drop off. In general, I don’t even keep up with what shows are current on TV or streaming services. It took me a few weeks to catch on to 13 Reasons Why and the debate surrounding it, but when I read a little bit about the subject matter, I knew I had to check it out. For those of you who don’t know the premise, here it is:
17-year-old Hannah Baker commits suicide. Two weeks after her death, her friend Clay finds a shoe box on his front porch. Inside the box are tape recordings made by Hannah, in which she explains the 13 reasons why she chose to commit suicide.
Even without watching, I’m sure you can probably guess the controversy: A show aimed at a teen audience, critics feel that the subject matter glorifies and encourages suicide. Which is why I had to watch. As a teen suicide survivor, I wanted to know what the fuss was about.
I will start with this: Every person who has suffered from suicidal thoughts or who has attempted suicide has a different experience. My perspective is different than any other individual who has been through this hell; therefore, no one person’s opinion on how accurate a portrayal is of teen depression and suicide is “right.” However, I found the portrayal in 13 Reasons Why to be fairly accurate, at least as it relates to my own life.
There are a number of triggers in this show: bullying, objectification of women, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, just to name a few. All were heavy reminders of my downward spiral with depression during my junior and senior years of high school. Magnify that with today’s technology and use of social media, and you truly see how terrible the high school experience can be for those who aren’t part of their school’s “inner circle.”
Many took issue with the suicide scene. They said it would encourage people who already felt suicidal to perhaps act on their thoughts. I thought it was brilliantly done. Most imagine suicide being this sure, peaceful way to die. This scene showed the reality. It showed Hannah’s obvious fear and internal struggle with her choice. It showed the excruciating pain involved with slitting ones wrists. It showed the aftermath, and her parents’ discovery. It was violent and horrifying, and nothing about it was glamorous.
Some felt Hannah was too dramatic, too vindictive. But not me. Maybe because I was Hannah. I spent my later teen years in particular struggling with feelings I didn’t understand, acting out in ways I shouldn’t have, and making choices I felt would help fix the way I was feeling (or the way people felt about me), inevitably making situations worse, to the point where I felt like everything was on me. Everything was my fault. People would be better off without me. And there was nothing more I could do.
Others felt like the tapes and the planning were too unrealistic. Suicide is impulsive, they said. And I would agree: it’s impulsive . . . for some people. But not for others. I know many people who suffer from mental illness or who’ve had suicidal thoughts. Most of us have thought deeply about “how we’d do it.” In fact, the subject of suicide came up at lunch with a group of friends last year. Someone asked, how would you do it? Every single one of us had an answer. A detailed answer. Not just the method, but where we would leave notes, who we would ensure could find us, etc.
It sounds morbid, I know. (For reassurance, we also discusses what’s the one thing that would always stop us from doing it.) But this is REAL. It’s painful and it’s hard to comprehend, but this is what mental illness is like. Even with medication. Even with therapy. It’s a constant battle between good and evil, between suicide and what is stopping you.
Unfortunately, not everyone has someone or something to stop them.
This was another hang-up for 13 Reasons Why watchers: The implication that any of the 13 people involved could have stopped Hannah from killing herself.
My feelings on this aspect are a little more complex. Yes and no. Yes, I do believe that outsiders can have a strong influence on whether a person can bring him or herself back up from the bottom of the pit. No, I ultimately don’t feel as if this is the case for every situation. That’s not to say it’s the responsibility of the person suffering from suicidal thoughts to seek help, either. Because at the end of the day, mental illness is just that. It’s an illness, for which none of us have any true control over.
Yet, we can try. We have the obligation to try. And that’s the root of the message in this show. Every one of the 13 people involved could have tried harder. They could have made better choices. Bottom line is that they could have, and should have, been kinder. Even the tiniest action or word could have a massive impact on someone’s life. It’s a moral that all of us, especially our younger generations, need to do a better job of understanding.
And it’s our responsibility to help them. Is this show too graphic for teens to watch alone? Maybe. It depends on the teenager, his or her emotional maturity and mental stability. Should teens watch this alone? No. Watch it first by yourself. Then, watch it with your kid(s). Talk to them about it, honestly. Struggling with what to say? There are plenty of guides online (I liked this blog, myself). Don’t shy away from this conversation, because it’s an important one. A very fucking important one. Talking to our kids about the realities of suicide is the strongest way we can work to prevent it going forward.
And it’s the only way we can continue to destigmatize mental illness as a whole.