by Emily McGlawn, Digital Marketing Director
I’ll admit it…”13 Reasons Why” was binge-worthy. In terms of pure entertainment value, this show is great.
Unfortunately, this show left a lot to be desired in terms of depression awareness and suicide prevention. Disclaimer: This blog is my opinion, and doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of Erika’s Lighthouse as a whole.
I’m not going to talk about the critique from an entertainment point of view because that’s not what this is (even though I was annoyed at Tony for all his secrecy, and there were some confusing portions to the show).
I’ll start with what I thought they portrayed correctly…
- They handled sexual assault and the bystander effect graphically, but appropriately.
- They didn’t make Bryce a purely evil character from the get-go, showing how difficult it is to accept that someone that is your friend can also be a rapist and predator.
- They showed the effect of rape on a person.
- They showed the effect of minor sexual assaults, like groping, which is something many shows gloss over. Groping is traumatizing, and freezing instead of fighting or running away is totally normal.
- People trying to cover up sexual assault (like Justin did with Jessica), is what happens, quite frequently. Justin felt partially responsible for Jessica’s assault, and he’s correct.
- Tyler’s stalking was also sexual assault, and they portrayed Hannah’s fear poignantly.
The days leading up to her suicide
Hannah showed warning signs of suicidal behavior, which include:
- Excessive sadness or moodiness: Hannah was sad and moody throughout her last few weeks.
- Hopelessness: In her poetry, she expressed a deep despair. In the letter that she wrote to her teacher, she expressed thoughts that life might be better if she just ended it.
- Sleep problems: She couldn’t sleep the night after her rape, and wrote a list of things.
- Sudden calmness: Right after she finished the tapes, she was very calm. She said that she felt at peace because her job was complete.
- Withdrawal: She pushed away any friends, and didn’t speak to her family. She mainly withdrew from Clay.
- Changes in personality and/or appearance: She cut off her hair, not right before her suicide, but within a few months of doing it.
- Dangerous or self-harmful behavior: She waited outside of Tyler’s window, which was a dangerous and “stalker” type behavior to do, even though Tyler had done the same to her.
- Recent trauma or life crisis: Hannah was suicidal before her rape, but the rape triggered her. Witnessing Jessica’s rape, as well as experiencing PTSD during her encounter with Clay would qualify as recent trauma and life crises.
- Making preparations: The whole show is about her preparation for death.
- Threatening suicide: Hannah wrote poetry that was dark and depressed. She wrote a note to her teacher saying that she wanted to end it all. She spoke to her counselor saying that it would be better if life was just over.
- Jessica seemed to be abusing alcohol throughout the show, but excessively after her rape. This is a common (unhealthy) way to deal with trauma.
Depression discussion in “Beyond the Reasons”
- On Netflix, they created a 30-minute segment called “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons.” Most of the “Beyond the Reasons” was not suitable, which we’ll discuss later, but in the last 10 minutes of it, they discuss depression awareness and getting help. This was well done.
- Selena Gomez telling you straight to the camera that it’s okay to get help, and to offer resources through the Jed Foundation was exceptional.
- We need more young adults with platforms to tell us that getting help is okay, and to focus on hope. She said that life would get better, and it will.
- Many adults underestimate the effect of cyberbullying. Hannah wasn’t harassed online in a traditional cyberbullying manner. She was harassed because a photo got sent around, which painted a target on her back.
- Cyberbullying has real and lasting effects and should be taken seriously, as it was in “13 Reasons Why.”
Here’s what I feel they did wrong…
No discussion on depression
Hannah never says the word “depression.” In some ways, that’s realistic. Young adults don’t necessarily have language for what they’re feeling. However, the adults never say the word “depression,” either.
- There’s no warning on the screen before the show, despite the fact they have the “this content is graphic and may not be suitable for young viewers.” The producers could have used that screen to include a depression awareness link or a suicide hotline link. They didn’t.
- The show never has an honest depression awareness discussion. The closest they get is Mr. Porter offering a 30-second discussion on suicide prevention for the parents, and Mr. Porter is *not* portrayed as a protagonist in this show.
- They make the leading cause of Hannah’s suicide the bullying she experienced, but there is no one reason (or even 13) that caused her suicide. She was feeling hopeless and lost before some of these things happened to her. She was seemingly experiencing depression, and they never talk about it.
Showed her suicide method
- Showing her suicide is by far the worst part of the show. In “Beyond the Reasons,” the producers say they consulted with counselors and professionals, but it looks like they didn’t take their advice.
- There are very clear ways to discuss and focus on suicide, and showing the suicide is the absolute worst thing you can do, according to experts. Just indicating the aftereffects with her mother would have been enough to convey the horror of the situation. But they showed the suicide in graphic, slow detail. While it wasn’t “gratuitous,” it is triggering and potentially harmful to vulnerable viewers. As Clay even said during the show “I never even thought about death until Hannah.” Later, Clay contemplates suicide himself.
- There are adolescents out there experiencing depression right now. They might never have considered suicide before this show, and seeing Hannah do it right in front of their eyes could certainly plant that idea in their mind.
Glorified her suicide by focusing on her ‘revenge’
- They showed a positive outcome as a result of Hannah’s suicide. Hannah was suddenly a sympathetic character to people who hated her (like Courtney).
- Hannah’s suicide led to Bryce’s potential prosecution, and for everyone to fess up what they did.
- While they showed the negative impact it had on people (Clay’s suicide consideration, Alex’s suicide attempt, and Hannah’s devastated parents), they also showed a bittersweet ending…one that never would’ve happened if Hannah hadn’t killed herself.
- This also leads to a lack of permanence. Young people’s brains are changing; they don’t understand the consequences of their actions. “13 Reasons Why” gives off a feeling of “Oh, I’ll kill myself, and make them feel sorry, and they’ll treat me better next time!” Except…there is no next time.
- The only time they discuss medication during the show is when they try to convince Clay to take it, and he’s very clearly against that idea. He doesn’t need “help.”
- While this is an honest and realistic portrayal of medication for many teenagers, they also never discussed what the medication was for, and why Clay might need it.
- An adult never explained medication in an un-demonizing way. While we certainly don’t agree medication should be the first step when someone is experiencing depression (as it’s generally not needed to treat depression), sometimes it’s necessary, and shouldn’t be considered “bad.”
Written from an adult man’s perspective
- This story was written about a teenage girl and the issues she’s experienced in high school.
- It was not written by a woman who had experienced these things in high school.
- It was not written by a teenager.
- It was not written by a mental health professional who works with teens.
- It was written by an adult man who saw some bullying in high school and decided to make a story about it.
Here’s what I feel is a gray area (although much of the show could be construed as a gray area)…
Conversation with Mr. Porter
- Thematically, Mr. Porter’s failure to handle the situation appropriately makes sense. However, that conversation was not appropriate.
- Porter assumed that Hannah made a “decision” she regretted, rather than letting her discuss the rape. He didn’t use neutral terms to address the situation. He didn’t go after her when she left, upset. He told her to “move on,” rather than try to work through her assault.
- Later, he handled the aftereffects of Hannah’s suicide incorrectly, rationalizing that he has too many students to focus on just one troubled one.
- They could have shown another adult helping Alex, or Clay, who also needed help.
Overall, the show was a missed opportunity. However, your teens are likely going to watch it anyway, as it has become popular. If your teens are watching it, consider having a conversation with them about it.
Here is a potential resource to help you navigate that conversation, which also links to other resources.
What did you think?