The controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has become an international sensation, attracting attention for both its production and its handling of sensitive material.
Following the death of Hannah Baker, her classmate Clay Jensen receives a box of tapes from the recently deceased Hannah detailing the thirteen reasons why she committed suicide.
Since the show’s premiere on March 31, 2017, it’s become something of a lightning rod for issues surrounding mental health and bullying in adolescence.
Whether it’s just a TV show or not has an expressed duty to handle these topics ethically. A school in Canada recently banned its students from discussing the show and New Zealand has banned under-18s watching it alone.
The National Center of Health Statistics shows that suicide has passed homicide as the second leading cause of death amongst teenagers and it’s grown in all demographics. Whether the show or Jay Asher’s novel does anything to glamorise the subject, teenage suicide is a growing epidemic.
And as of this moment there is no mandatory mental health education in the classroom meaning that shows like 13 Reasons Why is the only way some people learn the warning signs of suicide.
Although there are ethical standards when it comes to the reporting of real suicide the academic study on the role of fictionalised suicide is comparatively less.
The show has received criticism from experts in the field due to it’s graphic nature being potentially triggering for those with depression and suicidal thoughts. A recent paper published by Columbia University said, “research on fictional suicide stories is contradictory, there is ample research evidence that highlights the imitative effect of suicide dramatisations.”
The show itself has been making strides to address some of the issues brought up after it’s premiere with the recent addition of the Thirteen Reasons Why crisis information page it’s not the best starting point but it’s the one we have and even producing youtube video talking about mental health.
Starting a conversation
Regardless of your opinions on the show it’s sparked a conversation that shouldn’t be ignored. Mental health struggles have often been seen as either romantic or crazy, not pieces of a puzzle built up over a period of time. By giving the victim of suicide a voice we’re able to see how a terrible and heart breaking act was committed not in the heat of the moment or after one specific event as suicide is often flattened into one single reason.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say this show checks all of the boxes when it comes to ethical depicitions of suicide but trying to stop teenagers from seeing it isn’t helping anyone. Instead we should be using this show as a starting point and a framework of how to act and how not to act, of how grief affects us and how violence can be built up over a period of time and words we say can affect what someone else does tomorrow.
13 Reasons Why isn’t the answer but is instead posing a question to us how do we deal with the topic of teen suicide? And the answer certainly isn’t shutting the door.