I haven’t read 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, but I have heard a lot about it through the BookTube and Book Blogging community, which is why when Netflix announced they were making a TV show adaptation – I got excited.
Mental Health, including depression and suicide, just aren’t talked about enough.
Yes, there is more awareness now than there was even just a few years ago, but it’s still a taboo subject that is often stigmatised and misunderstood, as well as being uncomfortable for sufferers (as well as others) to openly talk about.
Before I get in to the problems I had with this show – a little background on me:
I’ve had depression twice – once when I was around 13-14, and once when I was 21 (I’m now 27). At this very moment it is estimated that 1 in 4 adults are suffering with some form of mental health problem, and I am aware that at some point in my future, life will throw me a curve ball (because that’s what life does), and I may have mental health issues I’ll need to address.
I didn’t recognise that I had depression when I was a teenager. It was only when it reared it’s ugly head again in my early 20’s, that I recalled feeling that way once before. As a teen, I was never diagnosed or treated. In my 20’s, I went through a (thankfully) short period of depression, which ultimately led me to my GPs office and a 20 week Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) treatment.
It’s in no way an exaggeration to say that CBT changed my life then, and continues to have an impact on how I live my life now. I encourage ANYONE who is dealing with any form of mental health issue to reach out and
ask fordemand help.
I’ve also had anxiety since I was 17. My mother suffered a double brain aneurysm and haemorrhage, and to say that my life, and the lives of my entire family, was flipped upside down would be an understatement. I took my first anxiety attack in the Intensive Care Unit when I was visiting her, and it hasn’t left me since. I was prone to regular anxiety attacks, for no apparent reason, and was taken to both A&E and my GP on multiple occasions due to passing out. I was never actually diagnosed with anything.
The CBT treatment I received for depression actually ended up helping my anxiety too. Although I still have symptoms that I’ve learned to manage, I haven’t had an actual attack since I was about 22. I don’t know if it’s ever possible to rid yourself of anxiety completely once that seal has been broken, for lack of better terminology. Anxiety can bubble very quietly under the surface – even writing this post is causing mild symptoms, because this isn’t something I generally put out there for the whole world to read.
It’s probably important to say that if you met me, you’d likely never guess I’d ever had depression or anxiety. I’m an extrovert (80% of the time), I come across as confident, sarcastic, and talkative. I have a big personality, I like to be in control, and other quieter individuals can find me a little intimidating (I’ve done enough Personality Profiles and 360 Feedback Reports to know that these statements are based on actual opinions of others, I’m not just making them up!). I’m also ambitious, driven, and goal-orientated, and no, I’m not intending for this to read like a CV, what I am saying is that society doesn’t usually expect “someone like me” to have depression or anxiety. Well, guess what? We do. And there are A LOT of us.
Mental Health problems do not discriminate.
They occur in individuals from all socio-economic groups, all ethnic backgrounds, all ages, all genders, all sexual orientations. They affect “strong” people and “weak” people. They impact on introverts and extroverts. No one is above being affected by poor Mental Health, which is why we should all really learn to be much more open to discussion and understanding of Mental Health topics, as well as equipping all individuals with appropriate education on the signs, symptoms, and coping mechanisms.
Now that I’ve gotten all of that off my chest, let’s move on to the 13 problems I had with a TV show I was highly anticipating, and had such great hopes for, but which ultimately was very disappointing.
1. Suicide is used for revenge.
The message in 13 Reasons Why is clear – Hannah Baker takes her own life, and leaves behind 13 cassette tapes, for 13 different individuals, detailing how they contributed to her death. The “welcome to your tape” intro became synonymous with the show, and as a viewer this whole set-up felt not only wrong, but wholly unrealistic and over-dramatised for the sake of the show.
2. Suicide is meticulously planned.
Hannah leaves behind these (decorated) tapes, with instructions as to what order they should be listened to and passed on, and a back-up plan for public release should any one of the 13 individuals not comply. The tapes are coherent, sarcastic (some would go so far as to say witty), and glib in their content. They do not depict the thoughts and feelings of someone in a very dark mental head-space who is contemplating suicide. They are elaborately well thought out.
3. Suicide is over-simplified.
Hannah faces a number of difficult challenges, but I don’t think we are ever given an insight into the time-frame of their occurrence. It certainly appears as though they happen in reasonably quick succession, and Hannah moves from regular teenager to suicidal quite rapidly, with absolutely no discussion of any other mental health issues, or struggles with depression, that would come before suicidal thoughts. Suicide does not happen in isolation.
3. No positive interventions.
Netflix has a massive audience, and a TV show like 13 Reasons Why provides the perfect platform to bring discussion about mental health and suicide into the mainstream IN A POSITIVE WAY. Hannah had a good relationship with her parents, she had a friend in Clay, and she clearly trusted and spoke with the all-knowing and very odd character of Tony, but the show didn’t think to include reaching out for help as an alternative option to taking your own life?!
4. Poor representation.
By this I mean the representation of the school Counsellor, who Hannah eventually speaks to. He had a complete shit-show of a response that actually incensed me. I’m sure plenty of people have had poor responses when they’ve finally shared how they’re feeling with someone, but to depict a trained individual in the poorest light, will only compound the wrong message to young people – that there’s no point opening up because no one will believe you/help you. This incites fear, and is NOT the message to promote.
5. Suicide as a method of attention-seeking.
There are multiple times throughout the show, where the depiction of Hannah’s character actually does nothing to help de-stigmatise mental health, depression, and suicide. Not only are many of the initial reasons Hannah blames someone for contributing to her suicide tenuous at best, but when she does go to see the school Counsellor to discuss a significant sexual assault, she leaves his office and stands outside watching his door to see if he will follow after her, while audio-recording her response.
6. Simultaneously too realistic, and not realistic at all.
While the show made a very poor effort to realistically portray mental health problems and depression, it more than made up for it in its depiction of an actual suicide. There were a couple of scenes that (as an adult) I really struggled with, namely two rape scenes and the suicide scene. I am amazed that this show is aimed toward a much younger audience – I would not be OK with anyone under the age of 18 watching this content.
Multiple suicide prevention organisations and psychology experts have spoken out about the suicide scene in the show, calling it harmful and unnecessarily graphic, following none of the guidelines for how to depict suicide in a “safe” way in the media, and some have gone as far as calling it a “how-to guide”.
If that weren’t enough, in the book Hannah takes an overdose of tablets, but in the TV show this was changed to show her cutting herself in the bath in up-close and gory detail. The camera never cuts away when you would expect it to. Why would the TV show need to change the ending of the book? Because it makes for more dramatic (and stomach churning) visual representation. It wasn’t a responsible decision, and it didn’t add to the conversation.
7. Self-harm is depicted as an alternative to suicide.
One of the characters in the show self-harms, and actually says that she does it as an alternative to committing suicide. This is not accurate, and it’s not OK for the show to essentially promote.
8. Suicide and the Blame-Game.
Let’s get one thing clear – Hannah Baker took Hannah Baker’s life. Ultimately, no one is responsible for the actions of another human being – certainly not a best friend who falls out with you over teen drama, not a guy who puts you number one on the list of the best bums in the class, not someone who publishes your poetry without consent, and not even the asshole who takes a picture up your skirt and shares it on social media. If there is one person in the show who could be considered “responsible” for Hannah’s mental health decline, it’s Bryce who committed a disgusting sexual assault on Hannah. However, that still isn’t a direct A = B as to why Hannah took her own life.
9. Teen Drama.
Linked to the above. For the majority of the show I couldn’t see past the melodrama. Hannah made a revenge tape for the guy who put her number one on the best butt in the class list because it was one of the reasons she killed herself?! What message is this sending to young people!?
Granted, the things that affect you and the impact they can have on your mental health as a teenager, are often different to the the things that affect you as an adult. As a teenager I may have empathised with Hannah more, but as an adult watching the show, who struggled with bullying A LOT in her teenage years, I did not think this kind of representation was OK.
The vast majority of us get through the awful challenges of being a teenager, we learn resilience, and we grow to understand what is important and what’s not in the context of the opinions of our peers. This show offers absolutely no coping mechanisms or methods of dealing with bullying constructively.
The ever-present, all knowing, slightly fantastical, and too-old-looking-for-High-School, Tony. I spent a large part of the show thinking there was an element of magical realism, that Tony was an angel, or an “other” meant to serve up an overall moral to the story. If anything, Tony highlighted the utter dysfunctional and unrealistic elements to this show in one compact character.
A sweet, if somewhat naive, character who was secretly “in love” with Hannah Baker, and is a focus for one of her tapes. The big reveal? He wasn’t actually one of the contributors to Hannah’s demise, he’s used to create suspense, and the poor guy is driven to distraction by having to listen to the majority of Hannah’s tapes before finding out that she thought he was actually a pretty great guy, who didn’t contribute to her suicide. Why the hell would she put someone through that?!
Hannah’s voice, the flashbacks to previous events, and at times her ghostly presence throughout the show, give the slightly strange impression that she’s somehow still here even though she’s gone. She’s kind of bearing witness to the impact her death has had on those she has blamed for her death, as if she is somehow able to see how her revenge ploy plays out. The show didn’t do a very good job of depicting that once you die, you are gone. Forever.
13. Loose ends and Season Two.
To me, this show should have been a stand-alone. One series to make an impact, to portray the significant meaning of the novel on-screen, to engage with young people and open the door for discussion. To depict mental health and suicide responsibly, and realistically. Instead, the series ended with multiple loose ends, and plot points were changed, which left me with a feeling of dread – they were setting up for a second season.
Ta da! A second season has been announced, and I couldn’t be more disappointed. At the end of season one, a second character makes a suicide attempt (which never happened in the book), and the scene is set for what looks to be a school shooting plot in season two. Not only is this diluting the point and purpose of Hannah Baker’s story, it’s taking every possible serious and significant scenario that has the potential to affect teenage lives, and turning it into melodramatic, polished, and hyperbolic drama for the sake of popularity and ratings, and I’m not OK with that.