The Netflix mini-series “13 Reasons Why” has the potential to be a great catalyst for society to start a productive dialogue on mental health.
The Netflix exclusive is based on the young adult novel by Jay Asher, which follows 17-year-old Clay Jensen as he listens to tapes recorded by his crush Hannah Baker. The tapes detail her life and what led to her decision to commit suicide.
The series deals with heavy topics including peer pressure, underage drinking, cyber bullying, domestic abuse, slut shaming, sexual harassment and assault, rape, PTSD, depression and, of course, suicide.
“13 Reasons Why” presents a good opportunity for our society to converse honestly about suicide. Whether it’s in a classroom or everyday life, it’s not unusual to hear the crickets in a room once someone brings up the topic of suicide.
Suicide rates in the United States have reached a 30-year high across most age groups except in the 75-and-over age group, according to a 2016 study conducted by the CDC.
Considering suicide is the second leading cause of death from ages 10 to 24 as of 2015, according to the CDC, it’s important to be aware of the signs that could be displayed by peers who are dealing with suicidal thoughts.
A show-related featurette called “Behind the Reasons” elaborates on this idea. Rebecca Hendrick, child psychologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, urges that “every warning sign, every symptom of depression should be taken seriously. A drastic change in behavior, a drop in their grades, getting in fights with their peers or parents or authority figures, substance abuse–these are all different signs to look out for.” “13 Reasons Why” shows how all these signs can manifest.
On one side, people with mental illnesses need to feel comfortable discussing how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking, and also need to be able to articulate those things when they do want to ask for help. On the other side, neurotypical people need to understand how their actions and words can affect people, and how to recognize when a person is in trouble.
It is more important than ever to end the stigma associated with mental illness to prevent these tragedies and spark a healthy national dialogue.
Even before the series reached our viewing devices, the New York Times best-selling novel prompted people to be more aware of their actions and their consequences.
“‘13 Reasons Why’ was a really special story to me, especially when I read it for the first time when I was 14,” said Alisha Boe, the actress who plays Jessica on the show, during the special. “It really did change my perspective on how to treat people because you really don’t know what other people are going through.”
Now that the story has been re-imagined and updated in visual media, it can reach a whole new audience and generation and inspire them to take responsibility for how they treat others.
Suicide prevention starts with ending the stigma surrounding mental health issues, especially with approximately 43.8 million percent of adults suffering from a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
If such a large number of the population has felt such strong instances of mental strain, then connecting through arts and television could prove beneficial for society.
The show has received praise being one of the more authentic portrayals of the high school experience, compared to what is typically shown on television.
The show does not attempt to gloss over the seriousness associated with mental illness and the path that led to Baker’s death.
“It’s important for the viewers (of ‘13 Reasons Why’) to see there’s often a lot of collateral damage when someone dies and the person contemplating suicide might not realize how much their death might affect people that they love and that they didn’t want to hurt,” said Rona Hu, psychiatrist at Stanford University of Medicine, during “Behind the Reasons.”
There are some critiques that suggest the scene in which Baker dies of suicide is too graphic, but executive producer Brian Yorkey made it clear that its explicitness is necessary.
“We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch. Because we wanted to be very clear that there is nothing in any way worthwhile about suicide,” Yorkey said in the special.
Any show that deals with suicide is going to be controversial, especially one like “13 Reasons Why.” Controversy is what sparks conversation. It’s what makes people look into the facts and look at their own lives in order to try and form an opinion and make sense of it all.
Thankfully, “13 Reasons Why” is already doing that. The show is a solid starting point and a way to ease people into the conversation. Soon, people will be able to move on from talking about the show and start talking about the tragic realities of suicide.