13 Reasons Why: a massive strike against the stigma of suidice and mental ill health.

WARNING: This post contains spoilers from the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” and references to suicide and rape/sexual assault which some readers may find upsetting.

So, that happened. Last week I binged watched the whole of 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix series based on a book of the same name from Jay Asher.

If you haven’t seen it yet, the series follows the friends and family of Hannah, a teenage girl played by Katherine Langford, as they look for answers in the aftermath of Hannah’s death by suicide. The series is set around a series of 13 audio tapes recorded by Hannah before she died, each explaining one of the reasons why she decided to take her own life.

The main characters in the series are Hannah herself, who we meet as we learn from the tapes about the events leading up to her death; and Clay, a close friend of Hannah’s from school. Other key figures in the story include Hannah’s and Clay’s families as well as their wider circle of friends from school.

As episode by episode goes on, we are forced to confront the difficult issues that Hannah faces in the last few months of her life. These include the rape of one of her friends, to which she was a witness; her experience as a victim of sexual assault; and her struggles with her mental health; all of which eventually lead to her suicide.

Through all of this, 13 Reasons Why doesn’t make for comfortable viewing. The programme makers haven’t shied away from confronting the issues, and we see the full horror of both rape scenes, Hannah killing herself, and then the discovery of Hannah’s body by her family; not to mention a myriad of other deeply uncomfortable moments in the characters lives.

Some people, including mental health professionals, many of whom I have a lot of respect for, have said that they see 13 Reasons Why as reckless; an unnecessary glorification of the very issues it seeks to confront.

I, though, believe 13 Reasons Why to be one of the most significant and valuable pieces of television ever made.

This is something I say, both as someone why has previously suffered from mental ill health – including suicidal thoughts – and as someone with experience of working in the media and producing films.

Of course, the series is not perfect. Opportunities are missed to depict the help which is provided for young people after traumatic events (e.g. counselling), and the staff at Hannah’s school are portrayed as more concerned about financial liability than the welfare of their students.

However, these negatives are far outweighed, in my view, by the way in which 13 Reasons Why confronts suicide head on.

We see that Hannah has been driven to her decision to end her life through a series of things, all of which pile on to her one after the other. Even though other people in her life don’t see it, she feels hopeless, overwhelmed, and unable to carry on – but not able to communicate this to anyone or ask for help.

Children and young people all over the world experience suffering like Hannah every single day. Teenagers’ brains work differently to adults, and problems which may seem surmountable to those later in life can, to a teen, feel everlasting and unsolvable.

It is a tragedy that so many of them, like Hannah, don’t get the help that could potentially prevent them dying by suicide.

Through every episode, we watch as Hannah’s friends and family fight with grief, with guilt that they didn’t do more for Hannah, and search for a reason to explain what has happened. As someone experienced a friend dying by suicide at the same age as the young characters in 13 Reasons Why, I can tell you that the series’ portrayal of these characters experience is absolutely spot on.

Suicide is a serious social and public health issue throughout the world, and across all age groups. But statistics tell us that it does disproportionately affect young people. Indeed, suicide kills more under-35s than road accidents and every year more than 6,000 adults and children in Britain and Ireland take their own lives. Tens of thousands more attempt to do so.

As increasing numbers of young people are suffering from mental ill health, and society puts every greater pressure on them both academically and socially, the very children who need help the most are still scared to speak out for fear of stigma or harming their future job prospects.

Shying away from suicide, or any of the other issues raised in 13 Reasons Why, does not help anyone. According to The Samaritans, “The media can play a positive role in raising awareness of suicide… It can inform the public… and promote the fact that suicide is preventable.” The series does this, and it does it more successfully and more openly than any other programme I have ever seen.

Every single young people in the world should watch 13 Reasons Why, as should all parents, and all teachers and others who work with children. Many will be upset by it, and almost all will find it challenging and deeply unsettling viewing – that is the point. However, if it saves even one life by encouraging peers to look out for each other, by showing people the signs to look out for in someone who is suffering, then it will have been worth every moment.

2 thoughts on “13 Reasons Why: a massive strike against the stigma of suidice and mental ill health.

  1. Matt. I’ve heard great things about this new series on Netflix, but I’m afraid to watch it. My son (age 15) tried to commit suicide last year. I still suffer from PTSD, and worry about his mental health every day. Although he’s in a much better place, I will always be afraid. At the same time, I think not talking about it or avoiding any mention of it isn’t healthy. Do you think it would be something my son and I should watch together? I’m not interested in watching an over dramatized version of something I lived first hand, especially if nothing is learned from it. For someone with no personal experience or knowledge on the subject, it may be an enlightening and dramatic show that both shocks and educates. But for the already enlightened, do you think it’s worth a watch?

    1. Hey Heidi,
      There are certainly some bits which I would be uneasy about your 15 year old watching on his own, so watching the series together with him and then talking about it might be better. Particularly if you think he might watch it without you, that might be an option to look at. Thinking on my own experience, I really related to the characters and watching the programmes helped me, in a way, because it showed that the emotions I dealt with myself are something ‘normal’ in the circumstances. Having said that, my experience with suicide was 15 years ago, and perhaps less raw than it may still be for you. There’s one scene in particular, where Hannah’s parents find her body, that I think might be especially difficult for you. As a filmmaker, I think the series does a great job in all the ways I mentioned in my blog. But, at the end of three day, if you think it will cause unnecessary stress for you or your son, then I would just stay away; no TV programme is worth endangering your health or your family’s health.
      All the best,
      Mat

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