Recently, I watched the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (based on a 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. My thoughts aren’t fully formed yet, but I wanted to write something as the series came out without waiting until I had it all sorted out. My feelings and opinions may develop more as I process the material for a longer period of time. However, I’m open and curious about other perspectives.
1. 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.
2. 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 honored Hannah’s wishes to leave her alone.
3. 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.
4. 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).
5. I appreciated the series emphasizing 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.
6. 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 demoralizing than inspiring to me.
7. 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.
8. There are warnings in the beginnings of episodes where there are graphic scenes (e.g., sexual assault, suicidal behavior). It would have been helpful if the episodes had information about resources, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 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.
10. 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).
11. 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.
12. On two occasions, two adults (the counselor and the communications teacher) state that the warning signs for suicide include withdrawing from friends and family, changes in appearance, and trouble in group projects. This was a great opportunity to share the real warning signs for suicide, but unfortunately, only the first one really maps onto the list.
13. 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).
But, overall, he’s smart, sensitive, caring, a good student, interested in the world beyond the walls of his school, helps others, takes reasonable caution in his decision-making, and likes geek stuff like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. During one exchange, Hannah says to Clay, “Wow. You’re an actual nerd. There’s courage in that.” Most of the other characters in the series view themselves and their worth in terms of what their peers think of them. This generally rings true with regard to this developmental period in adolescence. It’s refreshing to see someone who has some self-acceptance and a sense of what’s right in the midst of all of the tragedy.
Dr. Kathryn Gordon is an Associate Professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University. Her research focuses on disordered eating and suicidal behavior. She co-hosts a website and podcast exploring mental health in fictional characters called Jedi Counsel.