Is ’13 Reasons Why’ taking its toll on mental health?

By Erik Hopkins, staff reporter.

By now, we’ve all heard of Netflix’s new show, “13 Reasons Why.” Based off Jay Asher’s 2007 novel, “13 Reasons Why” tells the story of postmortem Hannah Baker, a high-school student who took her own life due to a slew of reasons. Before her death, Hannah recorded a set of 13 tapes, each one descriptively dedicated to someone who contributed to her decision to take her own life. The show takes place over 13 hour-long episodes that show devastating and heart-wrenching stories of Hannah interacting with her peers from the past, as well as the group of kids trying to put their lives back together in the weeks following Hannah’s death.

Hannah Baker has a powerful story to be told, one that too many can relate to, but her story seems to blame those around her and to haunt them terribly for the decisions they’ve made. Throughout the means of the show, you begin to gain a false hope for her character. Even though you already know that she’s dead, watching these stories makes you think that maybe, just maybe, things will turn out differently – that she’ll make it out.

Before we delve any further, let me make this clear: Hannah Baker is by no means a hero. Hannah Baker is not someone to idolize or to pity, but her story is something to pay critical attention to. Don’t come at me yet – I’m not saying that Hannah deserved all of the horrible things that happened to her. I have sympathy for Hannah’s character, but she needs to be held accountable for her wrongdoings.

On the tapes, Hannah calls out Justin for not protecting Jessica from being sexually assaulted, however, Hannah was in the same room as Jessica and did nothing to stop it from happening – she also never even told her about it. Hannah also placed a huge burden on Tony, giving him the tapes to keep secret without him even playing a part as one of her “reasons.” She forced people to be held accountable for what they did, but was her intention to ruin them to the save point she was?

“Their portrayal of high school was real, and very realistic,” says Allison Pries, a 17 year old senior at Saint Charles High School, “Someone made an identical list from the show [that rated girls on features] and posted it in the girls’ bathroom.”

The show tackles harsh and realistic issues that high-schoolers, and even adults, are dealing with – suicide, self-harm, sexual assault, stalking, manipulation, bullying, mental illness – but not all of the topics the show touches on are dealt with properly.

Depression is never mentioned in regard to Hannah, but not everyone with depression commits suicide and not everyone who commits suicide has depression. Hannah’s suicide is never noted as her fault, but the fault of the ones on the tape. This isn’t the case.

After all this, it begs the question: Is this show taking a negative mental toll on people?

The thing I worry the most about with youngsters watching “13 Reasons Why” is that they will think every move made by Hannah was the right one, and that her actions cannot be criticized because of the fact she committed suicide. Like all of us, Hannah wasn’t perfect, and neither were her actions before and after her death.

Suicide is a topic that needs to be discussed, and young suicide can’t be averted, but it comes with risks. ‘13 Reasons Why’ chose to depict Hannah’s suicide in an extremely graphic way, even changing Asher’s original method from the novel to make more of an impact on its viewers. This could be dangerous.

Youth who watch intense portrayals of suicide are at risk for something called “suicide contagion,” where someone recreates or copies a form of suicide shown or seen. According to theconversation.com, “It’s clear that suicide is not simply a product of psychological illness or psychological risk factors. Exposure to suicide, even if it is just an attempt, is emotionally devastating, and youth need support when coping with the complex emotions that follow. Here, prevention – or, sometimes called ‘postvention strategies’ – becomes crucial.”

Suicide contagion is even something seen in the show; however, it is not directly mentioned. Three main characters, all on the tapes, have dealt with their own suicidal thoughts after Hannah’s death due to the tapes. One character even attempts it.

The graphic nature of Hannah’s suicide scene had good intentions from the show’s creators and actors – to shock and to show how devastating suicides are. Julie Cerel, a clinical psychologist and president-elect of the American Association of Suicidology, notes that artistic impulses to show the descriptive suicide scene shouldn’t override high-stakes public health concerns.

“I don’t care if it’s more artful – we’re influencing kids. This show is aimed at kids and young adults, and the last thing I want them to do is glorify the idea that suicide will end all of their problems.”

The show did a lot right, in terms of bringing topics to focus – but instead of focusing on how Hannah felt, and the different avenues she did have that didn’t result in ending her own life, they focused on the kids in the tapes and how they felt. Help for people struggling isn’t impossible.

“I know a ton of Hannah’s at my school,” says Pries, “This show has an important topic to talk about. Some people just need to take it more seriously.”

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