13 Reasons Why is undeniably one of the most controversial series of the year, but the frightening thing is the effect it has had on young people. Whilst it is a novel in origin, the story of 13 Reasons Why gained viral popularity when the Netflix original series launched.
Whether a huge fan or intense protester, everybody was talking about the show, but its popularity carries a sinister undertone once you learn that, after its release, suicide-related google searches in the United States increased dramatically.
Admittedly, I personally enjoyed the show upon my first viewing (in a guilty pleasure sort of way, reminiscent of my relationship with the likes of Pretty Little Liars). However, once I began to consider the story on a more serious and less 'binge watch fodder' sort of way, I just felt angry at the quite frankly outrageous portrayal of not only teenagers in general, but the issue of suicide.
13 Reasons Why would have you believe that suicide is nothing more than a fabulous way to take revenge on anyone and everyone who has wronged you, and ensure that you are immortalised as beloved. The worst part of protagonist Hannah's pre-meditated suicide is that not once is it explicitly stated that she is mentally unsound.
Suicide is not something that a mentally stable person commits.* A failed suicide will land somebody in a psychiatric unit because they need help in order to overcome their mental illness.
Suicide is not revenge, and yet 13 Reasons Why does an excellent job of making it seem like Hannah was 'driven' to kill herself, and everyone on her 'list' is responsible for her death. In the season finale, one of Hannah's schoolmates states that they (i.e. Those on her 'list') all killed her. What kind of message does that send to anybody who has lost a loved one to suicide, let alone the show's impressionable teenage audience?
To summarise the series, Hannah kills herself because thirteen people (thirteen reasons) wronged her in some way. If they had portrayed the character in a realistic way that had done justice to mental illness sufferers, perhaps the show's message could have been an awareness-raising one, implying that Hannah making audio tapes for her peers to listen to posthumously, blaming them all for her death, was a symptom of mental illness, rather than a legitimate justification for her suicide.
Now, I'm not saying that all of her 'reasons' were invalid; for example, she was raped and the perpetrator certainly carries blame for any post-traumatic stress Hannah suffers, but one of her tapes of blame targeted a boy who did nothing but love her, even through her least loveable moments, for not going against her wishes when she suddenly became hysterical and screamed at him to get out of the room once they finally decided to get it together. She actually cites his leaving as a valid reason for her suicide.
But, as I may have said, I try my hardest to read Hannah's actions as symptoms of mental illness, because it really is the only way to make it seem even remotely realistic.
However, most teenage girls (and even a lot of adults) may not be aware that suicide is, except in rare cases, caused by mental illness. It’s not a reasonable cause of action taken by a sound-of-mind individual.
Hannah's suicide is intricately pre-planned, and she looks back on events in her life that led up to it, as though something as simple as a personal poem being publicised anonymously would ever be considered to be one thirteenth of a reason for someone to kill themselves.
When someone close to you (or even someone you only know as an acquaintance) takes their own life, it is only natural that you would morbidly wonder if there was anything you could have done to prevent it. Or, worse still, whether you were in any way responsible for it.
What 13 Reasons Why does is reinforce these thoughts, particularly in its young, impressionable viewers, and give them not only the mindset that suicide is a solution if people make you unhappy, but that if someone you know kills themselves, it could be your fault.
We should be teaching youngsters that people who are as unhappy as Hannah need help, not validation. The series does touch on this with Hanna visiting her school counsellor before her suicide and failing to get advice that might have changed mind about killing herself, but all that amounts to in the end is that the counsellor is one of those 'responsible' for her suicide, despite giving her sound information. Yes, her rapist deserves to face consequences, but the counsellor (quite rightly) tells her that they cannot take action if she is unwilling to name him.
13 Reasons Why does too good a job of showing and justifying Hannah's reasons for her suicide, whilst never even hinting that the major problem, and only 'reason why' is that she is mental unwell.
Perhaps her experience with bullying has contributed to the development of her mental illness, but that does not mean that any one of the people she names 'killed' her. Not even her rapist. Unless, perhaps, the show means to suggest that all rape survivors would be taking a valid course of action by committing suicide?
Scarily, the Netflix original has been renewed for a second season (despite wrapping up Hannah's entire storyline in its first thirteen-episode season) and, with the first season ending on what appears to be the buildup to a school shooting, I dead to think what damaging message another thirteen episodes will bring.
*There are, of course, exceptions to this, such as in cases of terminal illness, financial hardship or mass suicide, but the majority of suicides can be attributed to mental health, moreso in the case of female sufferers.