While the new Netflix mini-series “13 Reasons Why” did well in capturing the struggle of mental illness, the show did falter in its glamorized portrayal of suicide.
In the show, the main character Hannah commits suicide in an explicit scene. Showing the graphic scene can have harmful implications for viewers that may be vulnerable despite the pro-mental health message that is trying to be conveyed. These people could be emotionally triggered by the content.
The detailed portrayal of Hannah’s suicide violates the guidelines on “safe and responsible reporting on suicide” put out by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. A story should not explicitly describe a suicide or use graphic images since it could potentially trigger others and increase the risk of additional suicides, according to the guidelines.
Helen Hsu, a licensed clinical psychologist said in a special from the show called “Beyond the Reasons” that “as hard as it was to see the final decision that Hannah made when she died of suicide, I think it was important to show that it’s not a pretty death. It’s not an easy one.”
While the intentions of showing the scene might be beneficial in not shying away from the topic or hiding it, expecting everyone to react to it in a constructive way is naive and idealistic.
Though the scene in question is the center of most of the show’s controversy, another aspect of concern is the way the characters, who have to deal with Hannah’s suicide, are portrayed.
Hannah blaming her death continuously on everyone else puts the responsibility on who she left behind. In some sense, this makes her a bully. In doing so, the show subtly condones suicide as an act of revenge.
In some ways, making the people dealing with her death makes the ends justify the means, which is the exact opposite sentiment the creators wanted to make.
Enabling the character’s desire for retribution is counterproductive for people suffering from depression and advocates fighting to end the stigmas surrounding mental health. It takes away from the bigger picture and makes it out to be something of a vengeful tactic.
Another area of concern is the demographic that’s being targeted for the show is the same age group (10 to 24) that suicide is a high risk for, according to the CDC.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Dan Reidenberg, the executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), explained that, “Young people are not that great at separating fiction from reality, that gets even harder to do when you’re struggling with thoughts,” Reidenberg said.
“13 Reasons Why” might be speaking to an audience that needs a voice, but it’s also important to note that this is fiction.
This just goes to show how suicide in media needs to be taken seriously at every turn. It needs to be thought about and the message that’s being sent must be mulled over seriously.
While “13 Reasons Why” may prove to be a good start in the dialogue for suicide and suicide prevention, its shock-and-awe tactics might have sent a message that wasn’t intended.