Watching 13 Reasons Why would have made me kill myself a few short years ago. It is full of damaging mistakes commonly made in suicide, bullying and rape discussions and it is a genuine threat to people’s lives. From glorifying suicide to giving the message that trauma is not meant to be worked through but escaped, this show has a lot to answer for in the mental health community. I am appalled at its popularity and desperately hope that it doesn’t get watched by those at risk. Here are 13 reasons why I think it is so bad:
1. MORAL HIGH GROUND GIVEN TO THE DEAD
The tone of the main character (Hannah) is demanding throughout, but the most difficult part to stomach is the base assumption made that she has the moral high ground.
When people die it is natural for us to remember them as slightly better than they were. We celebrate their lives and validate our missing them by glorifying their characters and accomplishments. This is healthy and provides all of us with a sense of worth about our living.
When someone commits suicide, this glorification still exists, but it can be more confusing. Of course we should celebrate the lives that have been lived (no matter how long they were), but we should also feel comfortable remembering them realistically.
13 Reasons Why disregards this realism and elevates Hannah to someone with the maturity and moral superiority of all other characters in the show.
This moral high ground allows her to make judgements and demand things. Her having killed herself (and having experienced bullying and abuse) somehow gives her a superior status from which she delves out “lessons on life” to those who wronged her.
Killing yourself will not give you emotional maturity.
Being a victim does not automatically mean that you are wholly without fault.
And we can have discussions about this without going into the realm of victim blaming for rape (which I am certainly against). The difference is that if we give someone moral points based only on the fact that they have experienced suffering (or are a part of a demographic who has) – and not based at all on the morality of their behaviour or actions (which would be more telling) then we are falling trap to a very common and damaging bias ourselves. We then begin to lose moral clarity and compass.
2. YOU DON’T GET TO WATCH YOUR AFTERMATH
The most frustrating way a film can handle suicide and death is by reinforcing the illusion that we get to experience our aftermath. We have stories about being ghosts and watching how everyone reacts – in order to learn what our world is like without us.
This can create a very damaging illusion in the eyes of a depressed person looking for help: it can separate them from the true reality of death and make them feel like it would be a healing solution. That death would give them the closure that they are wanting.
It makes it seem that we would finally be able to have the difficult conversations with our loved ones, and be understood by our friends as we are. It says that we would be able to experience feelings of vindication as our abusers felt guilt and shame from our deaths.
But the most likely reality is that you just die and decay.
You do not get to watch and feel resolution. Rather, you go from suffering to nothing. Life is incomplete and unwitnessed by you.
Resolution from depression and suffering can only be experienced through the death of their sources and the full embrace of living while you are alive. It is the greatest gift of life that we can change and grow as we experience such wide ranges of emotions and experiences. The satisfaction that we think we would get from seeing our own fame at a funeral can already be had by having healthy relationships with genuine feedback in our living days.
By narrating through the voice of someone who is dead, the show created a dangerous illusion that makes suicide not seem as final and serious as it truly is. Death is silent, we need to hear what hurts you while you can speak.
I was quite in shock when I realized that the name of the show meant what it meant.
Writing a story based completely off 13 reasons to kill yourself creates this idea that there even is a list of reasons why you should kill yourself. This harms those that feel suicidal when “nothing bad has happened” to them, and it harms those who have experienced trauma.
What kind of message is being sent?
If I want to kill myself but haven’t been bullied in the specific way outlined in the show am I still allowed?
If I have had the exact things that happened in the show (or worse) happen to me, should I kill myself?
It is important to remember that depression and trauma are not necessarily linked! You can feel suicidal without ever having experienced abuse.
Creating the story from this premise is an insanely poor judgement call. It simplifies the complexity of (the very common) human existential longing for death, and it creates a way by which we can judge the suffering in our own lives and that of others to be worthy or not of killing ourselves.
Focusing on the “reasons why” and not the “reasons why not” to kill oneself is a huge error made by the creators. It proves that the goal of the show was not to prevent suicide but to experience it.
4. WE ARE NOT THAT IMPORTANT
When I was feeling especially suicidal in my early teens I would sometimes fantasize about how my journals might be read like famous last words. That every detail about my life and its dramas would be eagerly understood by others – much like the show.
But this is not the case. All life has tragedy, drama and accomplishment. These are our personal entertainments – the films that we get to act in. But the reality is that much of them won’t be obsessed over by others.
At the beginning of her suicide tapes the main character says, “Get a snack and settle in cause I’m about to tell you the story of my life.” Not only does this assume that her life and death are for our entertainment, it reinforces the idea that we are owed an audience (her only rules are that the tapes are heard and passed on).
13 Reasons Why gives the illusion of a fame that can be achieved through suicide.
As someone who has spent a huge amount of effort overcoming my own trauma and mental illness I get very enraged by the constant lack of coverage that healthy practices get.
Most advice is given offhandedly in cringe-worthy nagging tones. “If you or someone you know…” And then we tune it out.
Counselling, meditating, healthy habits, medication, and general self development are seen as boring and lame so we stick them in as footnotes.
So rarely are we given a realistic, genuine example that it is possible to fully heal from trauma. That it is possible to experience horrifying things and still feel alright at the end. With specific and “on purpose” work you can truly handle anything in life.
I have proven this to myself by healing my body image, intimacy and sexual issues from experiencing sexual assault. I have been able to work at redefining my deep core beliefs that were damaged through bullying and other abuses. My diagnosed mental illness has released all of its symptoms due to daily habits. After being kicked out, attempting suicide, getting PTSD, supporting suicidal family members, dealing with loved ones’ cancer, strokes, and surgery while not being able to afford my stressful University courses, and still choosing to expend the energy to live I have very little patience for media ignoring the practices that allowed me to survive.
Like most, this show gave us all the drama and trauma without providing real (literal) life saving tips. How irresponsible! How useless! I already know what it feels like to experience horrifying things (and so do many), now make our stories worth something by using your voice to show us how to heal.
6. WE GIVE OURSELVES DOSES OF GLOOM
At some point we need to admit how desirable it is to be tragic. Whether it is a result of us wanting tenderness and attention or being recognized for how hard we work to live, every now and then we want to be the sad character.
The fact that the show made the main character a beautiful version of this, will only solidify it – especially in the minds of young girls.
When I was in high school I certainly felt a bit of enjoyment when I sprained my ankle or experienced a hardship because I knew that it might get me some sympathy. Even still we all enjoy some sad music on a rainy day – for some 13 Reasons Why is a bit of an indulgence into drama and a way to roll around in tragedy. We all have a tendency to poke bruises for the sake of feeling.
But being in high school is hard, we are ignored and confused by who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do. Add to that any sort of abuse (which is unfortunately way too common), or mental illness and you are at grave risk for deeply identifying yourself as the tragic hero.
If you are in this mental state and you watch a show like 13 Reasons Why with the cool and beautiful hero, you might find yourself wanting to be like her.
The more that we have the “hero” as these tragic figures the more we will want to be tragic.
This glorification and popularization of mental illness will move our baseline over towards a dangerous edge where more of us will be closer to suicide.
7. PUTTING RESPONSIBILITY ON EVERYONE BUT OURSELVES
It is very hard for us at any age to admit our own faults – we don’t like to hear hard truths or accept our roles in the bad that happened to us. Of course this is a logical move to preserve our emotional states.
But not being able to admit our responsibility (however small) in the trauma that has happened to us will forever prevent us from healing and moving on. When we admit that we participated in what hurts us we can forgive ourselves. It also humanizes our abusers and helps us understand that much of the ways that we hurt each other is done out of folly and not malicious intent. Once we remember this we can view our lives more positively – if the world is not out to get us than there is hope that our futures will be better than our present suffering.
The show did not endeavour to show character development through self awareness and going through the uncomfortable process of taking responsibility for the things that have happened in our lives. Instead, it gave the message that your suffering is always only the fault of others and it is their job to make up for it…or you’ll kill yourself.
8. I DON’T WANT YOUR INSTRUCTION MANUAL
While I had already been depressed for years, I never experienced suicidal wishing so strongly as I did after my friend killed himself. Suicide contagion explains the phenomena of one suicide becoming a catalyst for other suicides.
Though I was told that I felt so strongly because I was wanting the same attention he got, it was more that I was suddenly given instructions for getting out of my sorrow (that had now intensified with the regular grief of loss), and they were very hard to ignore.
Depression is numbing and foggy, it tends to dampen our imaginations. Before my friend’s suicide I had wallowed around in feelings of hatred and sadness expecting it to continue indefinitely due to some genetic bad luck, I didn’t really have a plan to get out. But once I experienced someone else’s choice to end their life so closely, I suddenly had creativity back in my own mind. It was like I just remembered that I could die, and that was a very relieving thought.
Getting details about a person’s suicide method (as is done in the last episode of the show), gives those who are wanting a way out a quick and easy path. Crying on my apartment balcony in the middle of the night after my friend’s funeral, and knowing that it was possible for me to put myself in a casket made me want to jump more than I had before.
If we are depressed, we need a separation from witnessing and learning about the methods of suicide or else our brain will offer up that information as soon as we look for a way out of difficult emotions. Anytime I feel extreme panic, anxiety or depression the images and details about suicide come to my mind as a solution.
So I need to give my mind as little of these ideas as possible when it is vulnerable.
Our brains have good memories for shocking images. 13 Reasons Why’s choice to include the suicide scene was an excellent business choice, and a very poor suicide prevention one.
Saying that we want to have an open discussion about a difficult topic does not mean every horrifying thing should be filmed and shared and it certainly doesn’t mean that you are harming mental health discussions if you oppose triggering imagery. We don’t need to make and share every image that could be shared.
9. YOU MUST ACCEPT THE SUFFERING YOU WILL CAUSE
Another way that I was prevented from acting on my suicidal thoughts was by realizing the damaging effect it would have on my family for the rest of their lives. We require a bit of this interconnected social responsibility to keep perspective.
Killing myself would just spread my suffering to those in my life that I loved – and it would likely increase the overall suffering that existed in the first place.
By giving out tapes to all those people who caused her suicide, the main character increased this suffering tenfold. Regardless of what they had done to her, her eerie, graphic, and specific way of telling them how they wronged her would certainly be grounds for each of them to make tapes of their own about her!
The show keeps this suffering loop up – she was hurt and then she hurt.
This kind of story telling is not morally or emotionally nuanced, and again it disregards the reality of suicides. No matter how much a genuine victim someone is they are not excused to cause suffering to others. This show did not address the emotional damage of the other characters as much as it did of the main character – further removing her sense of responsibility (and thereby ours as we identify with the hero).
I cannot expect my abusers to feel the consequences of their mistreatment of me if I do not also feel the consequences of my mistreatment of others.
More of us than we can imagine have experienced abuse of all forms – and to end the abuse cycle we should try our best not to do further damage (by forcing people to listen to tapes about the ways they made us kill ourselves).
One of the hardest parts of dealing with someone’s suicide is wondering if you were to blame. No matter how far off of an acquaintance, our brains are capable of creating some comment that we might have said or some action we should have taken to prevent someone’s suicide. This guilt complicates grief, and it is something the affected community normally takes years to recover from.
And yet this is the main plot point of 13 Reasons Why.
10. LETS REWRITE HIGH SCHOOL
After watching the first episode of 13 Reasons Why, you can already tell who is going to be the rapist (the white, male jock who is slightly less good looking than the bad-but-good-cause-he’s-cute-other jock), who will have dirty secrets (those interested in art or in the “fringe demographics”), and who will be the good guys (the stuttering “friend-zone” boy and the mysterious girl who just moved here and is miraculously beautiful, goofy, cool, experienced, innocent and popular – but not like the mean girls).
Do we really have no better characters to write? Must we keep following this casting of people?
I am realizing over and over again that the degree to which we can create characters in film and book is only as deep as the degree to which we know ourselves. This show is an example of more adults who have gotten their impressions of high school and teenagers stalled and are rewriting these basic stories.
I too remember high school having very similar and boringly typical “characters”. But when I spend even a little bit more time analyzing those characters I can see the full flavours of their humanness which are much more complex than we are ever shown on film.
We learn how to behave by acting out scenarios. When we are young we play “house” and other make believe stories to learn in a safe and theoretical way how to emotionally react to situations and how to interact with each other. As we become teenagers we continue to do this, but move on to more complex stories.
We pick a part that we might identify with from the examples we have seen (through media) and then we tentatively act it out in our youth. Sometimes we experience transformations (I “tried on” most of the stereotypical roles throughout my high school years), but overall much of our identity and method of behaving are shaped by which character we feel we are playing in life.
In the case of all shows about high school – I demand a higher standard. Show me the beautiful range of humanity that we authentically have in ourselves. Let me see the interesting ways that we are all a little bit of each (jock, nerd, etc), and write healthy behaviours so that we can at least try to imitate good.
11. EMPATHY CAN BE A DANGEROUS ROAD
In kindness, I can assume that the show and the book both had good intentions. I believe that their goal was to take us through a story wherein we would feel what it felt like when people bully, and rape so that we could understand why we should try so hard to stop it.
But again, they used the wrong approach.
Using empathy and identification with story telling to teach good morals must be done very carefully. In this case, the show develops those feelings of hopelessness and trauma to the point of making the sensitive watcher feel suicidal too. We identify ourselves with the main characters of media so that we can follow along, be engaged and understand. But in this case the main character led us to a horrifying solution.
We need to keep trying to end bullying and abuse by telling each other how awful it feels. And it is true that we are more often motivated to do this when we can imagine what it would feel like if it was done to us. So perhaps this show should be shown only to those who have no sense of imagination or understanding of why rape and bullying are bad – to those who are incapable of feeling empathy.
But for the rest of us (which is most of the population) who already knew that it caused suffering this show provided no benefit. It seriously damaged a lot of the progress trying to be made by mental health and sexual assault professionals, while also creating a gross glorification of suicide along with a whole host of unrealistic outcomes.
12. SUICIDE IS NOT A WEAPON
Using the bias that those who have suffered or those who have died have moral high ground and are not responsible makes it easy to use suicide as a weapon.
“In case you’re tempted to break the rules…” Hannah has set up a black mail system so that her wishes after her suicide are fulfilled. Rather than taking steps while she was alive, she used her suicide as a weapon for revenge on those who had wronged her.
This is difficult for those who have experienced the suicide of a loved one as this is certainly not always the case. It makes the image of suicide a teen-revenge one and it encourages some to use suicide as a bargaining chip.
Having suicide vindicate Hannah gives the message that it is an effective weapon.
The reality is that the threat of suicide is already used as a weapon more often than we would expect, and that it might work as well as it is shown to work. I have heard and experienced cases where an ex will use it as a way of keeping the relationship going.
Ending our own lives is as about as serious an action as we can make. So it should be treated as such. Call the cops or admit someone to the hospital if they are saying they want to kill themselves.
But when we are shown that it can be used to accomplish things (like the argument that wins all) it will be more often employed as a threat, further diluting the world of mentally ill trying to get help.
13. IS SUICIDE COOL NOW?
This show is a weird mix of Easy A and Pretty Little Liars pumped up with the political inflammation of rape and suicide. It makes suicide cool and casual and the way that is is handled is completely outrageous to those of us who have experience with these topics. Everything about the tone, imagery, music and story is a melodramatic teenage me’s dream…and it might have lead to my suicide too.
Could we find a better way to bring light to these issues? Could we hear more from those who are still living through their suffering?
Here is a very good podcast about a woman who’s daughter killed herself, and how she has reasoned through the notes left behind: The Mental Illness Happy Hour Podcast