COMMENT: Wow. Never has a TV show rocked me to the core like the last episode of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.
I can’t stop thinking about it and I really don’t want to. Because what I saw was more disturbing than any horror film imaginable.
This ending came as no surprise – it was the premise of the entire series. So no spoiler alert warning required; it involves the graphic depiction of a teenager’s suicide. I had to turn way it was so raw and realistic.
But I saw enough to be haunted by that image forever. And I don’t believe I should have ever been subjected to that vision in the first place. In fact, I’m angry I have been.
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For those who aren’t aware of the controversial series, 13 Reasons Why is centred around a pretty 17-year-old, Hannah Baker (Australian actress Katherine Langford). It opens two weeks after she has been found with her wrists slashed in the bathtub of the family home.
Hannah’s friend and crush, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) is clearly traumatised by her death, even more so when he comes home to find a box of cassette tapes on his doorstep.
The tapes contain the 13 Reasons Why Hannah took her own life, the people and events involved that allegedly pushed her over the edge.
And here is my first of many gripes with the series – these tapes indicate her suicide was the result of others’ actions. And suicide is NOT that.
Suicide isn’t murder or even manslaughter. It is the talking of one’s own life – by one’s own hand.
External reasons such as bullying and sexual assault as portrayed in the series may contribute, but only one person makes the final decision. And this series in my view validates that decision. And that is a very irresponsible message – if not a deadly one.
As someone who has suffered serious depression in the past albeit, thankfully, never to the point of contemplating suicide, I can clearly remember the feeling that I was irrelevant to others, that my life didn’t count.
I felt no one could see my pain and certainly no one could understand it. It comes hand in hand with this insidious disease.
That desire of “I’ll show you how much I am hurting” can attribute to a decision to end it all for someone who is so seriously depressed they believe life isn’t worth living. It gives their death a reason.
And in Hannah’s case, she does show them all. She lays clear blame and she gets revenge posthumously.
As one character states in the series, “Well, we ALL killed Hannah Baker” and this is wrong, Hannah Baker killed Hannah Baker. End of story.
There is nothing triumphant about losing a life for payback.
I am certainly not alone in my opinion this series sends a dangerous message to teens. In USA Today, Jaclyn Grimm writes: “I’ve dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts since middle school, about the young age of 13 Reasons Why’s audience.
“I never imagined logistics: razor blades cutting delicate skin … What I saw in my mind was crying peers and thousands of flowers and people wishing they had reached out to me. I didn’t want pain; I wanted control.
“While watching the show … all I could focus on was the power the main character had after her death.
“People argue the show is important because it discusses suicide in a straightforward way,” she continues. “But … mental illness isn’t explicitly mentioned in any of the 13 episodes.
“Hannah explains the reasons that caused her to commit suicide, but the show fails to acknowledge that 90 per cent of people who suicide suffer from mental illness. While external circumstances such as bullying can contribute to suicide, the show misses the opportunity to discuss the underlying cause.”
13 Reasons Why is based on best-selling author Jay Asher’s 2007 book of the same title and is produced by actress and pop singer Selena Gomez, who has been very open with her own battles with depression and anxiety.
In the aftermath of the controversy, Gomez defended the series saying, “They [kids] have to see something that’s going to shake them. They have to see something that’s frightening and follow these people. I want them to understand it … I was a mess just seeing it all come to life because I’ve experienced just that for sure.”
It is this commonality of experience Gomez mentions that is also one of the reasons I am opposed to the series. Mental health experts have expressed a very real fear this series will lead to suicide contagion.
In reaction to the series, the National Association of School Psychologists in the US released a statement: “Research shows that exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalised accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide.”
Yet Dr Rona Hu, a psychiatric consultant on the Netflix show, defends the program, saying it provides the opportunity for taboo subjects to be discussed more openly between young people and their parents.
This is a sentiment shared by Fairfax columnist Alan Stoke, who wrote about watching the series with his teenage children: “We could have tried to ban our children from watching it. We could have joined the outrage. Instead we have tried to turn the show into a positive: an educational tool and conversation starter.”
I agree that if anything positive is to come from this series, then an open conversation about teen suicide.
However, talk is only a start and I’m not convinced teenagers watching this series will not walk away with a more salient message that suicide is an option – and an effective one – to finally being seen, acknowledged and avenged.
And that is a tragedy.