13 Reasons Why 13 Reasons Why Is Dangerously Problematic

By Abby Fisher ‘17

Since its release on March 31st, 13 Reasons Why has quickly become the show to binge on Netflix. Based on Jay Asher’s young adult novel of the same name, the show tells the story of fifteen-year-old Hannah Baker, who, in lieu of leaving a suicide note, leaves a set of cassette tapes detailing the 13 reasons she decided to end her life. Hannah leaves recordings for each person she feels caused her to commit suicide, and the season follows one particular “reason,” Clay Jensen, throughout his intense experience listening to the tapes. While some have heralded the series as an important commentary on issues ranging from sexual assault to suicide, many experts in the field of adolescent psychology have condemned the show’s reckless disregard for the emotional, psychological, and physical well-being of its audience.

Here are 13 reasons why the show is dangerously problematic:

  1. It romanticizes self-harm and self-loathing.

There is a general trend in contemporary popular culture that idealizes self-deprecation. Perhaps this fad started as a way to help people struggling with self-image know that they are not alone, but it has progressed to a precarious point. In having people only become interested and show their affection for Hannah after her death, 13 Reasons Why makes it seem as though not realizing your own self-worth makes you more attractive to others, when, in reality, not recognizing one’s own worth introduces an unhealthily depleted sense of self. More importantly, it sends the message that being conscious of one’s self-worth is unattractive, and that being confident is repellant.

2. It presents suicide as conditional.

Suicide is not circumstantial or situational. It is not one action or person that leads someone to harm themselves. Hannah Baker is the unfortunate victim of sexual assault and bullying, but the idea that these things are the direct causes of her suicide is a gross oversimplification. Yes, it is important to be aware that you never know what is going on in someone’s life, but it is a mistake to think that saying the wrong thing to the wrong person will inevitably result in suicide. It’s not realistic that one isolated event or insult will cause someone to kill themselves, nor is it possible to prevent suicide with one action or compliment.

3. It presents suicide as a form of revenge. People do not end their own lives as revenge.

Hannah’s tapes suggest that there were 13 people or reasons that caused her to make her choice, most likely to make them feel guilty for they caused. The purpose of suicide is not to get back at a particular person or to make people feel guilty for what they have done. It is the result of a battle with mental illness.

4. The show barely broaches the subject of mental illness.

Because the series is so popular, young viewers are now have fundamental misconceptions of the extremely serious and relevant issue of mental health. As mentioned above, Thirteen Reasons Why presents depression as situational and never explicitly names Hannah’s struggle with depression and anxiety as a mental health problem.

5. It attracts the exact group who would be harmed by watching it.

The cast and crew created a documentary about the making of the show, and at the end of this documentary, they ask the audience to click on a link if they or somebody they know need help. On the website, below the phone numbers of suicide hotlines, is a link to the first episode. This effectively directs suicidal teenagers to a show about suicidal teenagers. Granted, these kids may have already been attracted to watch the show, but encouraging unstable adolescents to watch this show is extremely dangerous. While the intent may be to let them know they are not alone, watching can have life-threatening consequences.

6. The show discourages kids who are struggling from asking for help.

Throughout the episodes, Hannah’s friends repeatedly fall short. In the last episode, she makes a clear effort to reach out for help and is frustrated by her guidance counselor’s response. The show essentially presents a circumstance in which Hannah is repeatedly seeking help and is constantly disappointed by those around her. This sends the message that somebody who needs help should not bother asking for it because they will be let down by those who are supposed to help and support them. Young people who suffer from depression and suicidal ideation who watch the show are thus actively discouraged from asking for the help they desperately need. This idea that reaching out for support is futile could have potentially dire consequences.

7. The trigger warnings on the series are insufficient.

First, there is no trigger warning on the series as a whole – only on individual episodes. There should be a warning for viewer discretion for the entire series as a unit because the discussion of sensitive topics like sexual assault and suicide can be triggering to someone, even if there is no graphic depiction in a given episode. Second, though this is not unique to 13 Reasons Why, the trigger warnings themselves could lure people who should not be watching for health reasons to watch the show. Somebody who is struggling with anxiety or depression may be prone to self-destructive behavior. Hearing about a TV show that everyone is watching that they are warned to deliberately avoid could possibly heighten their attraction to the series.

8. The show makes it appear as though the only effective way to send a message to the world about your pain is through suicide.

The characters in 13 Reasons Why only listen to what Hannah had to say after she was gone, essentially conveying to its audience that people will only recognize your worth and give weight to your voice when you are no longer living; they will only appreciate you when you are gone. These are the types of things suicidal teens often contemplate on their own, and the media should not confirm them, which is exactly what 13 Reasons Why does.

9. It trivializes suicide.

Countless memes and jokes have circulated the Internet with the shared conceit that something insignificant will push someone over the edge. One notable example was a meme in which a student asks another for a pencil and is not given one. The caption on the image was, “welcome to your tape,” Hannah’s trademark greeting to each of her “reasons” on the cassettes. The culture that has resulted from the series minimizes and mocks grave issues of mental health.

10. The show ignores the guidelines established by The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention on how to successfully and safely portray suicide.

These regulations are in place to prevent people from harming themselves after watching something containing suicide. Neglecting to adhere to these guidelines can have fatal repercussions for some viewers, particularly adolescents.

11. It is everywhere.

It is impossible to avoid. Everyone is talking about it. Many viewers now consider themselves experts on the topic of suicide, depression, and sexual assault because of their 13-episode education. Many teens now walk around with a basic misconception about these issues. Moreover, the teens that are actually experiencing what Hannah experienced have to deal with their friends and classmates discussing their situations – incorrectly – on a daily basis.

12. The show is incredibly graphic.

In the last episode, Hannah slits her wrists on screen, providing those watching with a concrete way to commit suicide themselves. The recording of the tapes as well as the suicide itself occurring on screen paves the way for copycat suicides. The creative team of the show defended this decision by saying that they wanted something real and it was an artistic choice, but in the novel, Hannah overdosed on medication and did not slit her wrists. Furthermore, slitting one’s wrists is an extremely uncommon method of committing suicide. This overly gory scene was clearly added for shock value and ratings.

13. It was renewed for a second season.

Though the plot of the novel is self-contained and is finished within the first season, Netflix has offered the cast a second season. If it was not clear before, it is now irrefutable that the purpose of 13 Reasons Why is not to raise awareness; it is simply a way to get ratings and an audience.

       Though some argue the show has made strides in raising awareness for teen issues, it is abundantly evident that 13 Reasons Why harms the exact demographic it claims to want to help.

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