Netflix is accustomed to launching watercooler programs: binge-worthy series such as Stranger Things or House of Cards that get tongues wagging. But its controversial new mystery/drama 13 Reasons Why, adapted from a 2007 novel of the same name, is sparking conversation for the wrong reasons.
The series tells the story of high school student Hannah (Perth actor Katherine Langford) who dies by suicide then posthumously seeks justice, even revenge on the people she believes caused her death, via a series of revelatory cassette tapes. It includes a very graphic and utterly gratuitous suicide sequence in the final episode.
A glowing review on News.com.au calls it “smart and compelling“. I call it monstrously offensive and in extremely poor taste, from people who should have known better – including Spotlight director Tom McCarthy, who helmed the first two episodes. 13 Reasons Why premieres in front of a grim real-life backdrop, last year’s ABS figures revealing approximately eight young people suicide every week in Australia.
Earlier this week ABC News and several other outlets reported that 13 Reasons Why has prompted a growing number of calls to counselling services, leading Australian youth mental health foundation Headspace to speak out against it. According to Kirsten Douglas, national manager for school support, “people have said the show has triggered their own vulnerabilities and made them consider whether suicide is a possible option for them”.
I watched all 13 episodes – so you don’t have to – and compiled 13 reasons how the series gets it so wrong as an exploration of suicide. In a former life I worked for a suicide prevention initiative called Living is For Everybody.
1. Showing graphic depictions of suicide is not brave; it’s ignorant
There is so much research about the dangers of showing content depicting suicidal methods that it is difficult to believe we are still having this conversation. Much of the research leans on the social learning theory: that vulnerable people may identify with a suicide victim and be triggered by their behaviour.
As Mindframe’s Suicide and Mental Illness in the Media resource puts it: “Studies have found a relationship between the method of suicide portrayed in a fictional film or television program, and increased rates of suicide attempts using this method”.
2. People do not live on through notes or tapes or anything else left behind
Death is final. In the show, however, Hannah feels very much alive. She is visualised in moments based in the past and even in present-day sequences when people imagine her there. We hear her voice throughout the series; her narration includes lines such as “we’ll get through this step by step”, The impression is that you can live, post-death, maintaining communication with your friends. You can’t.
Some people find comfort in the idea they will live on after death in the hearts and minds of loved ones. However it is through our life, not our death, that we define purpose and meaning. 13 Reasons Why suggests it is the other way around.
3. Warnings of graphic content are not enough
Prior to certain episodes, a warning appears advising viewers of graphic content. Many experts, including Fincina Hopgood from University of New England, believe this is not adequate. The messaging should contain referral information (including phone numbers) for local support services such as Lifeline and Kids Helpline. Netflix needs to improve its one-size-fits-all approach to international distribution.
4. Suicide is not cool or chic or nostalgic or fashionable
Hannah leaves her friends and acquaintances a series of cassette tapes. Late in the series, she numbers them by applying nail polish. It’s as if the creators consider her choice of using old tapes to be Stranger Things-esque retro cool. It isn’t.
5. Suicide is not a game
Hannah reads out the ‘rules’ of her tapes (which sometimes prompt the listener to go to certain places and look at certain things) as if she were the mastermind in a popcorn movie. Like Dennis Hopper’s character from Speed, laying out the framework for an entertaining round of cat-and-mouse.
6. Bereavement is not a nifty way to add dramatic sizzle
The moral centre of the show, Clay (Dylan Minnette) is told to keep listening to Hannah’s tapes by the person she entrusted to distribute them. In one scene Clay asks: “What if I don’t? What if I can’t?” The keeper of the tapes responds: “Then it’ll get worse”. Like much of the story, the tone here is unsettling, but not like an effective thriller – instead it feels callous. People grieve in their own way, in their own time.
7. Suicide is not a way to gain power
Hannah was bullied and mistreated when she was alive. Her suicide and the tapes she left change that: through death she has been given agency. What a terrible (and patently untrue) message to send to young people.
8. The show wastes the opportunity to discuss mental illness
Not everybody who takes their own life has a mental illness, but mental illness is a significant risk factor for suicide. It is also common among young people. According to Mindframe, fourteen percent of Australians aged 4-17 have mental health or behavioural problems, and adolescents with mental health problems have a high rate of suicidal thoughts.
And yet mental illness is never explicitly addressed in 13 Reasons Why, which feels like a wasted opportunity. The show includes a moment when Clay reaches out to help another potentially at-risk person, but because mental illness is not explored at all, it feels like an arbitrary gesture.
9. The idea of BLAME is problematic and complicated – not black and white
13 Reasons Why contains characters who behave in deeply immoral ways. In an attempt to hold them accountable for their actions, they are blamed for Hannah’s death (one character even says “we all killed Hannah Baker”). Propagating the idea that there is always somebody to blame when a person dies by suicide is inaccurate and unhelpful.
10. Suicide is not a variety show
In one episode Hannah’s voice on the cassette tape says: “Welcome back, thank you for listening.” Enough said.
11. Suicide is not a way of getting even or righting wrongs
This is clearly Hannah’s plan: to use her death as a means of delivering comeuppance. The series suggests suicide can be an effective way of exposing wrongs and restoring a moral equilibrium. I doubt that was intentional, but it’s outrageous nonetheless.
12. Advocating community resilience is ignored
Suicide rates are countered in part through community and resilience building initiatives. We are all in this together and each of us can do something to help. Again from Mindframe: it is a myth that mental illness is a life sentence; most people fully recover. 13 Reasons Why does little to inspire that important positive message. No matter who you are or whatever you’re going through: you are not alone.
13. The creators did not adequately consult the suicide prevention community
If they had, this article would never have been written.
If you or someone you know is in need of support, help is available. Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. A detailed list of support services can be found here.
THIS ARTICLE WAS PAID FOR WITH THE SUPPORT OF DAILY REVIEW READERS. FIND OUT MORE HERE