The bad

lexi gavlas, spotlight editor

While many Netflix users binge watched the first season of the Netflix Original Series 13 Reasons Why on March 31, 2017, others had concerns regarding the series.  Based off of the 2007 book by Jay Asher, the series focuses in on teenage Hannah Baker, who has committed suicide and left 13 different tapes for each one of her classmates that had an impact on the end of her life.  Throughout the 13 episodes of the series, each tape is dedicated to a specific person and after that person has listened to the tapes, they must pass it on to the next.  While to some the show may seem like a harmless way to spend a Friday night, others such as Elana Premack Sandler, an employee of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, are shaking their heads.

Providing consultation to organizations on using evidence-based interventions and best practices for developing suicide prevention programs, Sandler is an expert in the field of suicide prevention.  In her article on Psychology Today, she focuses in on 13 things the series got wrong.  In short, 13 Reasons Why graphically portrays an act of suicide, a portrayal which is not safe for viewers and does not fit within best practices for media representations of suicide.  13 Reasons Why also does not show what people can do to help prevent a suicide death. There isn’t any one thing, but there are a lot of things that can help provide support for people with suicide risk. As Molly Kate Cline writes in Teen Vogue, “the audience is shown what not to do without examples of what they actually should do.” Imagine if all of the 13 Reasons Why viewers got to see an adult doing a good job of supporting a teen in crisis, or another teen saying, “I’m here for you and will go with you to get help.”

Sandler goes onto explain that the series is downright unrealistic and fails to show the cold hard truth of suicide. “As suicide prevention advocate Dan Reidenberg said on Good Morning America, “The show doesn’t talk about mental illness or depression, doesn’t name those words.”By presenting suicide as the only option in Hannah’s situation (we know the ending from the beginning), 13 Reasons Why doesn’t tell the much more common story of people living with (struggling with, but living with) difficult emotions and experiences and figuring out, with support and help from others, how to survive,” says Sandler.  

After a week of controversy, Netflix released this statement regarding the series:

“While many of our members find the show to be a valuable driver for starting an important conversation with their families, we have also heard concern from those who feel the series should carry additional advisories. Currently, the episodes that carry graphic content are identified as such and the series overall carries a TV-MA rating. Moving forward, we will add an additional viewer warning card before the first episode as an extra precaution for those about to start the series and have also strengthened the messaging and resource language in the existing cards for episodes that contain graphic subject matter, including — a global resource center that provides information about professional organizations that support help around the serious matters addressed in the show” (Business Insider).

Because suicide rates at the high school age are extremely high, covering the controversy of the series is difficult and must be handled in a respectful and orderly manner. Jillian Bowe (11) explained, with all the attention brought to [the show] we do need to be careful with how we bring up this topic in conversation. People need to take it at their own risk, really. Hannah is a very one-sided view of mental illness. She’s pretty stereotypical, which further ostracizes people who “don’t seem sick.” Bowe further explained,  “we also, however, have to remember that this show is meant not only for those people, but mentally stable people as well.”

13 Reasons Why takes a shot at the reality of mental illness as well as romanticizes the harsh reality of suicide.  More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined. Each day in the United States there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12.  With suicide rates higher than ever before, one must take caution when it comes to covering the topic, caution that the series did not take.