HELLO MY LOVELIES!
I’m going to put this information at the beginning of this because it’s so incredibly important. If you are feeling hopeless, down, anxious or the million of other feelings that are out there, PLEASE talk to someone.
There are plenty of options – clinics, doctors and hotlines. The Samaritans hotline is open 24/7, 365 days a year and is free to call on 116 123.
THERE IS NO SHAME IN NEEDING HELP.
I’ve watched the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (based on the book with the same title). The framework for the series is that an adolescent, Hannah Baker, has died by suicide and left behind audio tapes detailing every component that she believes led up to her death. In addition, she has a methodical plan for the specific people who should listen to the tapes, how they should be listened to, and the order in which people hear them. Some people say this is art and entertainment, and therefore, exempt from social responsibility.
Nonetheless, many people will watch this series, which makes it important to view the series critically and to consider its implications.
I just have so much to say on this show, so I wanted to share my thoughts in this post!
The series is set up as a mystery that quickly pulled me into the story, and I finished the whole series within a few days. While this is a compelling way to reveal a mystery, I believe that it contributes to stigma by painting the picture of a woman who ended her life for the purposes of getting attention from the individuals she believed ruined her life. The tone of her delivery is blaming and feels vengeful. I worry this perpetuates the myth that suicide is typically driven by desire for attention, selfishness, or revenge…which it most certainly is not.
There is a scene that is explicitly blaming of one of the few kind (though not perfect) people in the series (Hannah’s friend and love interest, Clay). Hannah’s friend, Tony, tells Clay that Hannah would have been alive if he had acted differently. He later softens his tone, saying it is not Clay’s fault and Hannah is responsible for the choice that she made. Still, the blame message is there in a scene where Hannah tells Clay repeatedly to leave her alone. He reluctantly leaves the room. The show then depicts a parallel universe where the “right” things happened: Clay insists on staying despite Hannah clearly asking him to leave her alone, he turns the conversation around through persistence, Hannah feels loved, and suicide is prevented. In light of the violations of consent elsewhere in the series (including two rape scenes), I was bothered by Clay being painted as having done the wrong thing when he honoured Hannah’s wishes to leave her alone.
Hannah decides, as her last attempt at help-seeking, to reach out to her school counselor about her suicidal thoughts and being the victim of rape. The counselor, insensitively and against best practice guidelines, implies she may be partially to blame (e.g., asking if she verbally said no to the perpetrator, asking if she had been drinking) and jumps right into telling her that her only choices are to: 1) report the assault or 2) to move on. She leaves the office, and he doesn’t follow-up with her in any way. He doesn’t ask for more details or conduct a suicide risk assessment, and he does not try to reach out to her parents to prevent her from harming herself. Of course, there are some counselors out there who might act in this irresponsible way. However, the vast majority would not. In a show that is viewed by a lot of young people, the depiction of the counselor matters a lot. People are already reluctant to reach out to mental health professionals. I worry people would feel even more discouraged from seeking help after seeing this terrible, judgmental, unethical interaction.
The series accurately portrays some of the risk factors for suicide: social isolation, loneliness, and disconnection from others (including in the painful forms of bullying), perceiving herself as a burden (e.g., she describes herself as a “problem” for her parents and especially feels burdensome after accidentally losing some of their money), family conflict (her parents argue about issues including finances), witnessing and then being a victim of sexual assault, and hopelessness about her future (e.g., with regard to college and other plans).
I appreciated the series emphasising how crucial social connections are for health and talking about different types of loneliness – including individuals truly isolated and those who feel “lonely in a crowd.” It seemed to make the point that even apparently popular people (like Zack) can feel lonely. I believe this sends the message that anyone is vulnerable to loneliness, and we shouldn’t assume people are doing well just because they appear that way on the outside.
One of the themes of the series is that – at any point – one person listening, reaching out, or doing something differently could have prevented Hannah’s suicide. Ultimately, this is a positive message. Unfortunately, I think it’s lost and distorted because it is used to blame people for their failures to save Hannah rather than demonstrating that one person could have made a difference and changed the story to a hopeful one. If the counselor or one of her parents had connected with Hannah and supported her in seeking help for her struggles, this point would have been much more persuasive. Instead, the story feels more demoralising than inspiring to me.
Hannah’s death scene is a graphic depiction of her cutting her wrists with razor blades in a bathtub. In a documentary-type episode made about the series, they said that it was to show the painful and hard-to-look-at nature of suicide. To me, it feels like a choice to make a dramatic, visually startling conclusion to the story rather than to deliver a lesson. It makes sense – this is a series meant to be watched and to get people glued to their screens not a PSA. It’s possible that an individual who feels suicidal might see that and be afraid; however, it’s also quite plausible that an individual feeling suicidal might mistakenly view it as an end to all of Hannah’s emotional pain and problems. Anecdotally, there are cases of suicidal individuals watching scenes of suicide building up to taking their own life.
There are warnings in the beginnings of episodes where there are graphic scenes (e.g., sexual assault, suicidal behaviour). It would have been helpful if the episodes had information about resources, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline embedded in them too. It would be a simple way to reach a lot of people. Again, the series created a separate short documentary-like episode with mental health professionals and resources in it. However, it appears completely separately from the series (rather than as the 14th episode, for example). It would reach more people if it was connected to the full series.
The pain Hannah’s parents experience after her death is excruciating. I feel this is one of the most realistic aspects of the series. It shows their horror, their confusion, their regret, and their desire to prevent other suicides from occurring. In the documentary afterwards, they suggest that this might show individuals who feel suicidal about the pain that others would experience if they died. I think this may be the case for some, but for certain individuals, tragically, they might imagine that people wouldn’t feel the same way about their death. That’s the cruelty of perceiving oneself as a burden – people struggling with mental health problems may not see how the world is better with them in it. I was glad to see Hannah’s parents in the series and watch them deal with the aftermath (as awful as that sounds). I was also glad to see them in Hannah’s life – they were busy, and they did get annoyed with her (any parent would be annoyed if their kid lost hundreds of dollars) – but they didn’t get a tape. They didn’t get a letter. Hannah didn’t confide in them. She left tapes to her rapist, her stalker, her tormentors – but nothing to her parents. This terrified me as a parent – the notion that you can do all you can for your child and they still won’t tell you when something’s wrong.
Related to the second point, several characters clearly violate Hannah. Marcus and Bruce grab her, Tyler and Justin take and share revealing pictures without permission, and Bryce rapes her. When Hannah and Clay are starting to kiss, Clay asks, “Is this okay?” I really liked this scene because it shows how directly asking about consent is natural and enhances, rather than ruins, the moment. It also shows a welcome contrast in that Clay genuinely respects and cares about her feelings and perspective. Sadly, this positive point gets diminished when the scene turns into Hannah yelling for him to “get the hell out” and the suggestion that if he had only ignored her wishes, he would have saved her life (as described above).
From one perspective, it seems like a point of the series is to teach bullies that their actions can lead to someone dying by suicide. However, most people who are bullied do not die by suicide – people are often remarkably resilient in the face of great adversity. It’s important that people who are on the receiving end of bullying know that. Secondly, most of the people on Hannah’s tapes are more concerned about protecting their own secrets (e.g., that Courtney is attracted to women, that Justin allowed Bryce to rape Jessica, that Ryan published Hannah’s poem without her permission) than how they hurt Hannah. If the message is supposed to be an anti-bullying one, I don’t think it really connects with bullying people in the audience. I guess that it would resonate more with people on the receiving end of bullying who feel a sense of hopelessness about the bullies having any potential for empathy and a sense that there is no help available to them.
A lighthearted, sweet aspect of the series is that Clay is different from his peers in that he cares relatively less about what other people think of him. He still cares what people, including Hannah, think of him to some extent, but he doesn’t try as hard as his peers to be something he’s not. He feels nervous around Hannah, but doesn’t ever really pretend to be someone else. He doesn’t let other people’s opinions make him feel bad about himself. Again, Clay’s not perfect (he says some mean things to Hannah and looks at a revealing picture that Tyler took without consent).
A character, Skye, says that she self-harms because “it’s what you do instead of suicide, suicide is for the weak”. Skye is the only “alternative” girl in the show, with a unique style (tattoos, piercings, wears a lot of black). She’s also the only non-cheerleader apart from Hannah. By calling suicide “weak”, she sends the message that self-harm is a valid escape without the finality of suicide. This is so dangerous and isn’t addressed more than once.
I’m really conscious of not crossing over into victim-blaming territory here, but Hannah sat in a room and watched Bryce rape Jessica while she was almost unconscious. Justin also knew what was happening. They both then continued to hang out in a group that included both Jessica and Bryce, all the while knowing what had happened. WHO DOES THIS. Who watches their friend being sexually assaulted and does nothing? Who still hangs round with their best friend when they know he is a rapist – not just a rapist, but your girlfriend’s rapist?
Hannah takes her life because she feels there’s no other option. She feels like she isn’t good enough for Clay, that she is a disappointment to her parents, that she is a laughing stock with a bad reputation and that things will never get better. She lays all of that on Mr. Porter – saying “I decided to give it one final shot”. The discussion doesn’t go the way she wants, and she carries out her plan. She said she began to feel like she could do this, she could get through it – what could Mr. Porter have said to change her mind about the suicide, then? What could he have done? Or, was this a red herring, and would his response have made things better until the next time Hannah felt she had upset someone or something else had happened to her? Was she a ticking time bomb all along? Was she always going to take her life, regardless of what was happening around her?
At the start, I thought he might be some kind of guardian angel from the 1950s. He constantly pushes Clay to keep listening to the tapes, knowing that Clay didn’t do anything bad – but instead of letting him know that it was okay to keep listening, he says “yes” when Clay asks if Tony thinks Clay killed Hannah – what?! “Listen to the tapes, Clay” – UM STOP TONY. Also – okay. The first tapes are full of stuff that could send people to jail. Rape, assault, stalking, dangerous driving – why would Tony continue to do what Hannah wanted instead of handing the tapes straight over to Hannah’s parents (or the police) – Hannah was already dead, he was in control of both sets of tapes, if he felt that guilty why engage in ridiculous chain letter behaviour, why leave her parents in limbo, why risk someone not passing the tapes on – who the hell is he to play God?
While we’re on the subject of Clay’s tape… Hannah left him until number 11? She knew he loved her. She knew he was a good person. She knew he would blame himself. So she makes him sit through 10 tapes, listening to all the bad stuff that ever happened to her, before she lets him off the hook? Really cruel. Really fucking cruel. Tony got a letter – but Clay didn’t? I understand why Clay was on there, and why she wanted him to hear what happened to her, but I think it was cruel to leave him waiting so long.
One of the brilliant things about this series is that there’s no clear protagonist and antagonist. In fact, I think each character takes turns playing the role of antagonist against Hannah … or against other characters, against themselves. This is much more accurate to life than the typical narrative, I found it refreshing. Sometimes we’re good guys, sometimes we’re bad guys, but none of us are pure evil or pure good.
We really didn’t see enough of Hannah’s headspace – mental health is a huge factor in suicide, and we didn’t get enough of an insight into how Hannah really felt. The emotional wellbeing of our teenagers is at risk here – every day we see more and more young people dealing with their emotions, trying to cope with the pressure of being a teenager in a digital age where everything’s scrutinised and judged, trying to work out their place in the world, trying to fit in, trying to overcome anxiety, depression – trying to get through the day.
In my humble opinion, we got 13 reasons, but we still don’t know why.
So how do we help?
If you’re a young person and you’re experiencing bullying, sexual abuse, or suicidal thoughts, you can contact:
Spunout.ie have a helpful article here (http://spunout.ie/health/article/sexual-abuse/) about how to identify sexual assault and what to do if you’ve been assaulted.
You’re also free to contact me if you want to! I’m not a counsellor or a therapist but if you’re reading this and you don’t have anyone to talk to, you can talk to me.
I hope you guys enjoyed this blog post, don’t forget to like and follow my blog! 💗
Have you seen 13 Reasons Why? If so, what’s your opinion? Talk to me in the comments below! 🥰
This blog is NOT sponsored and all opinions are my own.