A 19-Year-Old Mental Health Advocate on the Problem With 13 Reasons Why
Contains spoilers and content regarding suicide and self-harm.
As someone who has been a passionate mental health advocate for the past four years, I was excited to hear that Netflix was releasing a new series focused around suicide. Suicide and mental health don't exactly have excellent representation in media; I hoped that 13 Reasons Why would finally be that series to educate people and spread proper awareness.
In case you haven’t seen it or read one of the literally millions of articles about it (or totally missed the original YA novel by Jay Asher), 13 Reasons Why is a story about Hannah Baker, a high school student who dies by suicide and leaves 13 cassette tapes behind for her friends. Each tape reveals a reason why Hannah decided to kill herself. The first season follows the aftermath of her suicide and flashes back to show key moments mentioned in Hannah’s tapes. At the end of Season 1, we are left with a cliffhanger. While we obviously know what happens with her, we aren’t 100% sure what happened to her friends.
When I first finished the show, I thought it was incredible. I felt inspired to help create change for mental health and suicide awareness. I thought the series would help others understand mental illness, self-harm, suicide, and rape culture in a more impactful way...but I was naïve to think that way.
I started seeing criticism of the show less than a week later. I was confused at first, because 13 Reasons Why was perfect in my head. When I read other opinions and critiques, I realized that the show was flawed in significant ways I had failed to comprehend while I was watching it. Although the show has successfully sparked conversation surrounding suicide—which is great!— there were things that it could have done better. Or, that it can do better in Season 2.
Season 1 really shows the “reality” behind suicide and sexual assault, which means that pretty much all of it is triggering, i.e. causes a negative emotional response, to those who have personally dealt with suicide and sexual assault. Even though 13 Reasons Why focuses on someone who is not in the best place mentally, the show doesn’t properly treat viewers who are in similar situations to Hannah. There were only trigger warnings in a few episodes, and there weren’t any resources or support offered.
Of course, this isn’t just a problem with 13 Reasons Why—it’s with all TV shows and movies that contain possibly triggering content. Warnings should be more accessible; no one’s mental health should come second to entertainment.
Despite the show’s focus on suicide, there’s a real lack of discussion about mental health. The words “mental illness” aren’t mentioned even once in Season 1. Hannah’s suicide is seen more as the result of bullying and sexual assault, when in reality over 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health condition.
Leaving out any dialogue relating to mental health is detrimental to anyone watching who has a mental illness–diagnosed or undiagnosed–and aren’t sure how to talk to their friends and family about it. Talking about such a stigmatized topic in mainstream media could allow someone to see what steps they can take to get proper attention and care for their mental health.
13 Reasons Why had so much potential to educate its viewers on mental illnesses and create a genuine conversation surrounding it. They failed, but the show has a chance to redeem itself by setting up a second season that can set an example for other TV shows and movies. They have an enormous audience of teens and should do young people a favor by helping them understand mental health and what their classmates could be going through. To make the biggest impact possible, we need to talk about mental health whenever necessary and not exclude it from the conversation altogether.
Gabby Frost is the founder of Buddy Project, a non-profit that helps prevent suicide and self-harm by pairing people as buddies and raising awareness for mental health.