The Mess Of “13 Reasons Why”

Yes, I have finally decided to write a proper blog post about this topic. If you know me personally, then you know that I disapprove of this series and book. If you have been under a rock for the past month or so, 13 Reasons Why is a book written by Jay Asher, in 2007, was recently made into a Netflix TV Show. Selena Gomez, Co-producer of the series, and the production team wanted the series to bring light to suicide and make people more aware. The book was supposed to have a similar premise. As someone diagnosed with depression, I wanted to provide my criticisms on the series and how they fell short of REALLY talking about suicide.

First off, I want to give a disclaimer, I have not watched the series as it contains triggering material and I want to remain being bright sunshiny me. That is my disclaimer about little things that I might get wrong about the series. However, I did read the book in high school and was puzzled by how people found the book to be amazing. If the book had not been given to me as a present from a friend, I would’ve likely given it away because it’s not something I would read again, especially since, today, I have a better understanding of mental illness and Suicide.

The basic premise of the book and series is “be kind to people to people, so they don’t go home a commit suicide.” Now, the idea of being kind and good to others is all well in good. However, there is a problem when a TV series that is supposed to be about suicide never mentions mental illness at all. It’s not in the dialogue, referred to by the narrator, and I am also unable to find out if the 29-minute documentary after the last episode even discusses it. (I will not watch documentary as it is likely to have clips from the series in it.) There is an immense problem when suicide is mentioned without any word about mental illness. Suicide is not something that just happens; suicide is caused by mental illness. “The great majority of people who experience a mental illness do not die by suicide.  However, of those who die from suicide, more than 90 percent have a diagnosable mental disorder.”[1] The fact that this series tries to state its purpose is to talk about and inform about suicide, yet does not mention mental illness spreads the same misconceptions and ideas. In fact, I contend, the series should have advertised itself for the awareness about bullying, sexual harassment, and rape.

I understand that the series is geared toward neurotypicals, people who do not have neurotransmitter problems and other mental problems, as shown by the content they put into the series. Even with the triggering material, my biggest problem with the series is that there is no mention of mental illness whatsoever.  Even if one states Hannah is depicted as having depression, since it does not mention mental illness, it only fuels the current milieu of society about depression. At least in American culture, we have this misconception about depression and typically use the word very lightly. We generally don’t seem ever to take it seriously. We make jokes, have ideas like depression is just something that will fade over time, or even consider it as going through a hard time. However, depression is a mental illness, and that is hardly ever discussed in the media. In fact, I didn’t know till college that depression was a mental illness; before, I just thought depression was a life situational thing that happened. Studies have shown, depression does not fade but only gets worse as it goes untreated. The series perpetuates the misnomers about depression because it fails to explicitly talk about it as a mental illness, even if one says it showed depression in Hannah. The fact that it fails in talking about depression as a mental illness means that overall it failed in its aim of helping people that feel there is no hope. It fails to help those thinking of suicide. There is so much more that needs to be done than just calling a suicide hotline. When you say “get help,” the audience has to understand that it includes counseling every week, and it’s not a just passing moment of hopelessness. The hopelessness will come back again and again unless you get treatment for it. It’s not simple like the statement “a permanent solution for a temporary problem” makes it out to be.

Also, the series, if one wants to say it depicts Hannah having a mental illness, portrays it inauthentically. It provides entertainment that gives the idea that being friends with Hannah would have saved her life. This is not reality, even if Hannah had friends she would have still felt this way since she is “suppose to have a mental illness.” Mental illness is more complex than having friends, trauma, and people being nice to you. Bullying can be a factor in suicide, but it is not a direct cause of suicide. It has a correlation, but not causation.  The Centers for Disease Control states “We don’t know if bullying directly causes suicide-related behavior. We know that most youth who are involved in bullying do NOT engage in suicide-related behavior. It is correct to say that involvement in bullying, along with other risk factors, increases the chance that a young person will engage in suicide related behaviors.”[2]  In some way, bullying can be related, or maybe trigger, depression, but suicide is never the rational and normal response to bullying. It is a disordered reaction. Bullying should not always be related to suicide as the mainstream media often depicts it.

Pulling all these things together, including the rape scene, paints the common misconception that something bad has to happen to you for you to have thoughts of suicide. That can’t be is further from the truth, if mental illness were addressed and discussed then this idea would not be prevalent in the series. The fact is, you can have a good life and still feel terrible. Depression and other mental illnesses are illnesses and have a genetic and biological component. It is not all caused by environmental or situational events. Mental illness is linked to a combination of factors as to why they develop, and how people get them. The series portrays a situation that I do not believe is very common and reinforces the idea to have suicidal ideation you must be bullied, be raped, or have another trauma. This misinforms the audience of the show and does not help them if they ever encounter someone with those thoughts and feelings. It will leave people confused, and likely make them think the person is faking it because the person has a “good life.” The series does nothing to tackle stigma or open a discussion in providing educational material about suicide.

Anther problematic misconception that does not help with suicide, the series gives the idea that romantic love can save you. Clay, from what I understand, is left feeling like if he had only just loved Hannah, and was not afraid to do so, she might still be alive. He believes that he could have saved her from her mental illness. To show proof of this, here is some of the dialogue:

Clay: “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her.”

Mr. Porter: “We can’t love someone back to life.”

Clay: “You can try.”

Romantic love will not save you from your trauma and mental illness. It will not make those things go away. You have to decide to go to counseling and to tackle these problems head on. Only you can save yourself. Someone else can’t save you, they can help you save yourself, but they will not be your knight in shining armor to rescue you Like some damsel in distress. You have to be your own hero, have a support group of friends, and pray to your Higher Power for assistance. You need to fight tooth and nail to stay alive. To be more clear, from my Tumblr I better state this as, “In real life, a boy cannot, and will not, be what saves you from your mental illness and brokenness. You have to work at getting better. Getting better by the use counseling, learning to identify problematic behaviors picked from your parents, etc., and fight tooth and nail to stay alive. I speak from experience. Someone, you are attracted to, will not come along and save you, like a damsel in distress. Only you can do that, and your Higher Power, if you believe in one.”

I can go on and on about this series and the problems with it; however, the length of such would likely qualify as an end of term college paper, and I don’t want to write one of those on a series I hate. Thus, in conclusion, 13 Reasons Why perpetuates the same old misconceptions about suicide and if anything should be advertised as an anti-bullying series. (though, most bullies, I don’t think, realize they are bullies. So, who knows if the series will help with that or not.) It romanticizes the content about suicide, does not talk about mental illness, and paints the same pictures that are constantly in the media. It does not shed true light on the topic of suicide. The series is just an all around misrepresentation and an inauthentic portrayal of such matters. The producers and the series production team had good intentions, but the execution is lacking. Though, to be fair, the book itself has the same problems in regards to mental illness as the series. In my opinion, the 13 Reasons Why team should have chosen different source material for their goal as the book itself was very flawed too.


[1] University of Washington: School of Social Work. Web link: http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_suicide.php

[2] Page 3 https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/bullying-suicide-translation-final-a.pdf