13 Reasons Why… an offensive portrayal of mental health?

I finished 13 Reasons Why last night and since everyone is talking about it I thought I would give my own two cents on the Netflix TV show.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, 13 Reasons Why is an American TV show set in a high school. The story follows Clay, a nerdy yet self-assured young man, listening to cassette tapes from Hannah Baker. Hannah was his former classmate and love interest who tragically ended her own life.

I was expecting a very different depiction of mental health from this show. While I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and gripping plot line, there was something they never discuss throughout the entire show. Mental health. Hannah’s suicide is attributed to bullying. Bullying has a detrimental effect on a person’s mental health undoubtedly but they never even mention the word depression, not in a serious way. This makes absolutely no sense to me.

Furthermore, there are graphic scenes in certain episodes which definitely could have been left out. While there are trigger warnings at the start of these episodes, is it really necessary to depict rape and suicide in such a harrowing, realistic manner? As a journalist you are not allowed to describe the method of suicide. You also must include helplines at the end of a report. Why didn’t the creators of the show do this?

I believe that the intention of the show was good. It aimed to show us that words have meaning and can permanently damage a person. It also highlights how athletes at high school (and on into college) seem untouchable. This is definitely a fact, as exemplified by the Brock Turner case.

Headspace, the mental health organisation for young people, has already lashed out at the show. The “13 Reasons Why” Hannah completed suicide don’t make any sense. Was she suffering from depression? If you just watch the show and don’t critically analyse it, it really doesn’t seem like it. We see Hannah through the other character’s eyes and she is never developed fully. What are her hobbies and pastimes? How did she arrive in this town? She’s a 2D character, a convenient plot device to drive forward the story arc.

It’s a show about bullying, not about mental health. And for a series that isn’t bothered with an accurate portrayal of mental health issues, it has the audacity to show the method of suicide. They pepper the show with little sprinklings of mental health issues- Clay used to take anti-anxiety medication and suffered from nightmares, Justin was abused as a child, Skye self-harms. But none of these are fully explored. Instead, they just add to the narrative of “oh, kids these days are so messed up.”

The one thing the show did get right was the lack of concrete mental health services in place in schools. People who are suicidal or have depression can’t just chat to their friends and expect their problems to magically go away. Proper intervention is required, with a trained professional therapist (not just some “guidance counsellor” whose degree is a one-size-fits all combination of career guidance and just chatting). Medication may also be required, which is also continually stigmatised.

The worst part about this show for me was the fact that it treats suicide like a revenge plot for the bullies at school. This is a very dangerous and twisted narrative. It is hinted at the end that Tyler will shoot up the school and has possibly already shot Alex. Hannah is torturing her classmates from beyond the grave, just like they tortured her. Promoting and glamourising suicide in this way is completely unacceptable.

There is an argument that the series is showing how the glamourisation of suicide is dangerous and terrible. The poignant scenes with Hannah’s parents serve as a reminder of the devastation suicide causes. However, did the show’s creators ever stop to think that maybe people who are mentally ill won’t get this message? And see the show as a how-to manual to get the best revenge on the bullies? Time for those suffering from mental health issues to get a fairer and better on-screen portrayal, I think.

If you have been affected by the contents of this blog post:

Samaritans can be contacted 24/7 on 116 123, and their website can be found here.

Pieta House can be contacted at 1800 247 247, and their website can be found here.

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