The fictional series 13 Reasons Why, based on the popular young adult novel by Jane Asher, depicts the suicide of a teenage girl, Hannah Baxter. During her high school years, she was the victim of online harassment and sexual assault.
The show, currently available for streaming on Netflix, has enjoyed widespread support but has recently come under criticism from mental health experts for its confronting and graphic portrayal of suicide.
If you are thinking of watching the series here are 13 cautionary facts that may help you decide.
1. Movies reflect and help shape societal norms
Suicide is often referred to or depicted in movies. Researchers, Stack & Bowman, identified 1377 American films that contain one or more suicides between 1900 and 2009.
The greater the exposure to suicide in films, the more likely vulnerable people are to regard it as normal and an acceptable response to extreme stressors.
2. Suicidal individuals view their world in a distinct way
Researchers Till, Tran, Voracek, Sonneck & Niederkrotenthaler (2014) found that suicidal individuals seem to choose sad films that portray the world in a depressing or disturbing way, which may contribute to the maintenance or increase of suicide risk factors.
Individuals in adverse life circumstances, who are thinking about suicide, may be most likely to seek and choose suicide-related content and may in some cases act out their suicidal impulses.
3. People with depression can be adversely affected by movies with disturbing content
Rachel Sloan recently finished watching “13 Reasons Why.” She writes about why a part of her wishes she didn’t watch it at all. She says,
“As a woman who has long battled depression and suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide), the shows well-intentioned message about mental illness, bullying and sexism was not shocking but reaffirming of the dangerous ideals that have often left me feeling hopeless and alone.”
4. The suicide of an adolescent girl is not something to inspire hope, optimism or reassurance
The series writer, Nic Sheff, believes being open about the realities of suicide could help with prevention. He believes showing the horror of an actual suicide will save lives. He says, “I know I was right because my own life was saved when the truth of suicide was finally held up for me to see…”
13 Reasons Why is aimed at a young audience who face issues depicted in the show every day. But few young people have a balanced understanding of topics such as relationships, self-identity, emotional well-being, bullying and mental health making any helpful discussion problematic. Such issues rarely lead to suicide but they can rob a person of hope, optimism and reassurance.
5. Suicide contagion amongst young people is recognised as a serious issue
Suicide contagion refers to the process whereby one suicide or suicidal act increases the likelihood that others will attempt or die by suicide. Young people seem to be more vulnerable to suicide contagion than older people.
Researchers affirm that fictional dramatisations are associated with an increase in suicide. This was the finding of Schmidtke & Hafner (1981) who studied the effects of the six-part TV series “Death of a Student” in West Germany. They reported an increase in suicides by adolescents and young adults in the 70 days following the airing of the movie.
6. Exposure to suicide is linked to subsequent imitative suicidal behaviour
Researchers Pirkis & Blood (2010) could have been imagining 13 Reasons Why when they concluded their report with this statement
“According to social learning theory, there is a good reason to expect that entertainment media depictions of suicide could lead to imitation acts: such portrayals are widespread, often send a message reinforcing suicide as a course of action, often include graphic footage of the method of suicide, and often appeal to young audiences.”
Erik Kain, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, writes, “I worry how 13 Reasons Why might impact potentially suicidal teens. I worry about copycat suicides.”
7. Capturing all the factors that have led to a suicide is an impossible task
13 Reasons Why is Hannah’s story. It is her narrative but it isn’t necessarily right. Just because she’s telling her story and the way she saw the world doesn’t mean that’s the way the world actually was.
Hannah’s death is linked to bullying. While bullying can be a contributing factor towards suicidal thoughts and behaviour, it is wrong to portray it as a direct cause. Often there are other issues at play, including physiological and psychological reasons. Depression and the way depression can lead to things like suicide is ignored.
8. Focussing on the events preceding a suicide can overshadow and diminish the importance of help-seeking behaviours
13 Reasons Why is about teenage suicide. The series resolutely pursues this goal. Any help-seeking behaviour is rendered ineffectual and put to one side. It suggests that the victimised are all alone and need to resolve the issue to their satisfaction.
Young people are more like to seek help informally. But if access to their parents or friends is cut off they may not know where to turn. Previous negative experiences may also feed into their reticence to look for help. Young people may believe they alone are responsible for resolving the issues affecting them.
Help-seeking behaviours need to be cultivated. They don’t come naturally. Suicide prevention is about finding the right support at the right time.
9. The motivation for suicide is often unclear and relies on the evidence available
It is impossible to piece together the thought processes of the suicidal mind. In 13 Reasons Why, Hannah’s suicide exposes the actions of her peers and makes them feel guilty.
As one viewer commented, “The whole idea that there are 13 reasons why other people caused Hannah to kill herself bothers me.”
Playing the ‘Blame Game’ is a way of excusing yourself from all responsibility. The more positive message is this; we all need to take responsibility for our actions.
10. The repercussions of suicide are viewed in unrealistic terms
Suicide always has consequences, cataclysmic consequences. Heidi Chernich lost her son to suicide. She says,
“Your world is shattered into a million pieces and it takes the rest of our lives to deal with the loss of our loved one day by day.”
13 Reasons Why fails to capture the immense pain and upheaval that follows the death of a friend or loved to suicide. It fails to address the vulnerabilities of those left to grieve and their heightened risk of taking their own lives.
11. The spike in concerned callers to help lines suggests the content was disturbing to some viewers
Headspace, a youth mental health organisation, said that in the weeks since “13 Reasons Why’s” debut, the service had seen a growing number of calls and emails related to the series.
Headspace’s national manager of school support Kirsten Douglas said the show “exposes viewers to risky suicide content and may lead to a distressing reaction by the viewer, particularly if the audience is children and young people.”
12. Some of the harsh realities of teen suicide are glossed over
13 Reasons Why is a fictionalised account of a teenage suicide. It is not reality. It may mirror some aspects of a young person’s struggle but it is not the whole story.
Suicide is always a tragedy. It is never glamorous. It is often brutal. It is never the answer to life’s challenges. It doesn’t resolve anything. It throws up a lot of questions and a lot of pain. It attracts stigma. It stretches relationships. It is largely misunderstood.
13. Media guidelines address the portrayal of suicidal behaviour in the entertainment industry
Various studies, referenced by Pirkis & Blood (2010), have provided at least some evidence to suggest that an association between film and television portrayals of suicide and actual suicidal behaviour exists, and, therefore, that these media may exert a negative influence.
The guidelines stipulate that suicide should never be idealised or romanticised, that individuals who kill themselves should not be celebrated as people of courage and conviction.
If you are still undecided, check out the ‘talking points’ by clicking on the link below