Netflix's 13 Reasons Why caused mass controversy when it launched last month, and it's hit headlines again today after reports that the show has been renewed for a second season. The premise is grim – a 17-year-old girl took her own life and left 13 cassettes explaining her reasons why, each dedicated to one of the people she claims contributed to her death. The show covers bullying, sexual assault, voyeurism and a fatal car accident. It's a heartbreaking watch, especially considering suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10–24.
Some critics have accused the show of glorifying and normalising suicide, others have said it fails to tackle the issues of depression and anxiety that can preempt suicide. Professor Rory O'Connor, Health Psychology Professor, who leads the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory at the University of Glasgow has worked in the field of suicide research for 23 years. He offers his insightful review as to whether or not the show really is guilty of dangerous sensationalism.
The first thing I heard about 13 Reasons Why was the graphic coverage of Hannah Baker's death. I could see young people were gripped by the series, then I read the many concerns about the possible negative influence it could have. So, I took advantage of the bank holiday weekend and watched the show in full over four days.
The first red flag –which comes in the last episode– was that Hannah's death shouldn't have been shown in such graphic detail. There's clear evidence that graphic depictions of suicide may prompt other vulnerable people to use the same methods. It's called copycat behavior or social contagion. From a pragmatic point of view, the issue is that, although many people have suicidal thoughts, most don't act on those thoughts. Triggering events or images like those seen in the show make it more likely that someone who thinks about suicide will take the potentially lethal next step into action. If we can't change a person's distress, we – all of us, the media, whoever it may be - need to do as much as possible to make it less likely that someone will act on thoughts of suicide when in acute distress – and part of that is responsible reporting of methods.
I disagree with the producers, who claim it was important to show the brutality and real pain of suicide. I cried during the last two episodes, I found them emotional and touching. Even as a middle-aged man, I could identify with what she was going through – and the pain her family was experiencing. I don't think the depiction of the way in which Hannah killed herself is at all helpful. It provided far too much detail, which is contrary to all of the guidelines on the appropriate representation of suicide in the media. Also, although it was really difficult to watch, I think it underplayed the pain and distress of suicide and I don't see how it added anything other than the shock factor. The portrayal of Hannah's death in itself could be traumatising; people have said to me that they found the images very difficult to get out of their heads. Indeed, I found the images difficult to get out of my head. The graphic coverage, to my mind, remains unjustified.
A key aspect missing from the show is the absence of any discussion of mental health issues. It would have been good to see acknowledgement of the fact that suicide usually occurs within the context of people having mental health problems. Also, her suicide shouldn't have been portrayed as inevitable, as if there were no other options for her. I would have liked to see Hannah seek help more. Young people are less likely to seek help, but it would have been good to see her reach out more than she does. We only see the one attempt with the counsellor and the coverage of adults in general isn't particularly helpful – they're either too busy or they don't understand. Arguably, that's not representative of what goes on in the world. Obviously, there are some cases where people don't respond as they should in that context, but I think it's important and responsible, in a drama like this, to send out a message that's positive, that there is help out there, as well as being realistic.
"There's clear evidence that graphic depictions of suicide may prompt other vulnerable people to use the same methods."
Although criticism of the show has been strong, it tackles some important issues well and I found the series engaging. You see how the culmination of a series of events leave Hannah with a damaged sense of self and how she is gradually broken down. We see the cumulative effect of multiple challenges and events. Often, people who are suicidal talk in terms of "there's nothing left of me" and "I don't feel I am worth anything." They feel trapped – and see suicide as the only way to end their pain and despair. The sense of worthlessness and hopelessness that she talks about towards the end of the series gave a real sense of the hopelessness that she feels. People who are suicidal often can't see any future that's worth living for – their view of the future is restricted or biased so they don't see the positives – or any reasons for living. There's a lot of research on how perceptions of the future and positive thoughts in particular become completely constrained, how tunnel vision sets in and the vulnerable person's capacity to solve social problems becomes depleted; all of which contributes to their sense of feeling trapped, making suicide more likely. That came across accurately in the show; Hannah couldn't see beyond what was going on.
The nuances of her relationships with different people and what we talk of as social perfectionism comes across very well. Social perfectionism is what you think other people expect of you. For people who are suicidal, they often experience this type of perfectionism acutely. They think that they are continually letting people down and they're not meeting the expectations of others and that they're just not good enough. They internalise that as 'I'm not a good person or I'm a failure, or nobody could or will ever like me.' This was pretty well represented towards the end.
"You see how the culmination of a series of events leave Hannah with a damaged sense of self and how she is gradually broken down"
But two big questions remain, does 13 Reasons Why glamourise suicide and will it incite copycat behaviour? To the first, I say yes. Hannah gained influence in death that arguably eluded her in life. Throughout we're always conscious of her memory. It can be interpreted as Hannah gets what she wished for in life, for example, Clay talks about his love for her after she's dead.
To the second question, I hope that the show can be used in a positive way. For example, helplines have been attached to the series. It's really important that we don't shut down the discussion. Censorship isn't helpful. We don't want the message to be that it's not ok to talk about suicide; we need people to talk about feeling suicidal so that people reach out and get the help and support that they need.
Everyone's interpretation of 13 Reasons Why will be different. As someone who has been directly affected by suicide, it certainly triggered a lot of memories for me about experiencing suicide myself. My fear is a vulnerable young person might over-identify with Hannah and think of this as a potential solution for them too. So, hopefully young people will think about the issues raised in the series and consider how they would respond differently from Hannah if similar things happened to them.
"It's really important that we don't shut down the discussion; censorship isn't helpful"
Given that the series is out there and likely being viewed by millions, we need to grasp this opportunity to talk to young people about mental health issues and to enable them to seek help if required. I really hope that the coverage of 13 Reasons Why will make it more likely that young people who are feeling down or thinking about suicide reach out and seek help. There is help out there. And keep trying if, at first, you hit a brick wall. The other key message is straightforward; take care of one another. If something negative happens to someone, look at how that's impacted upon them and think about what each of us can do to ensure that all of us are kept safe.
It is ok to ask for help, and it is ok not to feel ok.
In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Papyrus are contactable on 0800 068 41 41 or by texting 07786 209 697 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.