Comment on the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why

By Rory O’Connor

I have been asked a lot recently what I thought about 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix series. I was reluctant to comment directly until I had a chance to watch it in full. I now have, having taken advantage of the bank holiday weekend to watch all 13 episodes, pretty much back-to-back, over the past four days. The series revolves around the suicide of Hannah, a teenage girl, and the 13 reasons why she took her own life.

Needless to say, I did not come to the series blind; I had read many of the reviews; which are mixed, to say the least (with concern growing daily and Netflix adding an extra warning following widespread concern from mental health charities). The potential triggering and copycat effects of the irresponsible reporting of suicide and self-harm are real, especially for those who are already vulnerable. 

I tried to keep an open mind, to view the series through the eyes of a teenager (a tricky task given that my teenage years are but a distant memory) as well as a suicide researcher and someone who has been directly affected by suicide. My daughter, who is 12, has not watched the series but she mentioned it to me, saying that her peers are talking about it and many of them have watched it. So, no matter what, the series is out there now, and it isn’t going away. Arguably, the widespread media attention may make even more people watch it.

I watched the final three episodes last night; they were intense and emotional. As many others have said, the final episode is truly awful in its depiction of Hannah’s suicide. Whereas there were breaches of the media suicide reporting guidelines sporadically in the earlier episodes, the actual coverage of Hannah’s suicide is unacceptable, being graphic and gratuitous – and is contrary to all of the guidelines about not providing a detailed depiction of method of death. I don’t agree with the producers’ justification for it being so graphic. More generally, the portrayal of Hannah’s suicide as inevitable, that suicide is the only option is also unhelpful and incorrect. Many viewers may also be left with the message that suicide is driven by vengeful motives, that help-seeking gets you nowhere and that the aftermath of suicide can be somewhat glamorous. Such portrayals add to the myths and stigma around suicide.

Having said that, the series was engaging, as each episode unfolded, you could see the cumulative effect of Hannah’s life events impacting upon Hannah’s wellbeing and sense of self. The risk with this narrative, though, is that a vulnerable young person may over-identify with Hannah and think of suicide as an option for them also. 

The series deals with really important issues: including objectification, sexual assault, social disconnection, thwarted love, shame and social perfectionism. These are all issues we need to discuss more openly. Therefore, we need to be careful that we do not shut down the discussion around 13 Reasons Why; inadvertently the backlash could be misinterpreted by vulnerable young people as “it is not okay to talk about suicide”. It is likely that millions of young people have watched the series already – and countless more will do so in the weeks ahead. Hopefully, the series can be used as a starting point to discuss these difficult issues in a safe and supportive environment (e.g., watching the series with a parent/adult). Also, if you are an adult who is worried about a young person, although it is scary to do so, it is important to ask them how they are, and whether they are suicidal. It could save their life. There is really good practical guidance about asking about suicide here.

I’d really encourage anyone affected by 13 Reasons Why to reach out, to speak to a trusted adult; this could be a friend, a family member, a teacher or a counsellor. There are also helplines, many of which can be accessed for free and 24 hours a day (see Useful Helplines below).

No matter what you are going through, there is help out there; suicide is not the solution.

Update (3rd May 2017)

Here’s a great 2 pager from Headspace in Australia on ‘How to talk to young people about 13 Reasons Why‘ 

Update (9th May 2017)

Rory was also interviewed by Harper’s Bazaar about 13 Reasons Why. The article can be found online at Harper’s Bazaar UK and Elle UK

Useful Helplines

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