Why ’13 Reasons Why’ Is the Bitter Pill We Need Right Now As a Culture

In Culture, Featured by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Amanda Valdovinos –

           “It has to get better … the way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.”  

– Clay Jensen, 13 Reasons Why 

Warning: Spoilers and potential triggers below.

The headlines this past week have been grim, leaving America shocked in the wake of the loss of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.  Amid the flood of condolences, prayers, and heartbroken tributes on social media put forth in response to these two tragedies, people are realizing now more than ever just how critical it is that we take mental health more seriously, and learn to properly discuss it in the public forum.  

Last spring, the entertainment industry entered this conversation boldly with the TV series 13 Reasons Why.  When the first season of 13 Reasons Why premiered on Netflix in March, it was quickly touted as “the most-tweeted show of 2017”, receiving over 11 million mentions on the social media platform within the first year alone.  

Based on a popular young adult fiction novel by Jay Asher, the show tells the story of a teenager named Hannah Baker who takes her own life, leaving behind thirteen cassette tapes revealing why and how she arrived at this choice. In each tape, she seeks to justify her decision by addressing one person in the cast of characters, and explain the experiences that led to her despair. The show demonstrates the effect each person had on her life (and, subsequently, her death), and then goes on to unravel the impact her suicide has on her friends, family, and school community at large.

Immediately following its release, the show was met with a clamorous protest of negative reviews from news outlets, mental health professionals, and media critics. The majority of these reviews warned parents and teachers of the potential damage the show was capable of causing. Critics claimed that it “glorified and romanticized suicide”. Many condemned it as a show with no redeeming quality because of the tragic manner in which it ends. They argued that showing and talking about suicide outright would only feed into the illusion that suicide is an attractive and viable option; and that having suicide be a prominent topic in entertainment and culture would merely raise suicide contagion.

The creators were not blind to the fact that the show does merit to be approached with caution, as it depicts deeply traumatic issues, including bullying, rape, physical abuse, underage drinking, substance abuse, and, of course, suicide. In his opinion piece for CNN, Mark Hennick spoke about the responsibility of the filmmakers to protect their audience. “Triggers are not necessarily to be avoided at all costs, but if you’re going to pull off a band-aid, you had better be ready to stop the bleeding and help the person to heal.“

And the filmmakers do this eloquently: Each episode is accompanied by trigger warnings and crisis helpline information, and the show’s website contains links to both national and international resources. The series creators also issued a warning that they don’t recommend the show for those who are still struggling to recover from trauma or mental illness.

The critics’ evaluation of the series as harmful simply because it discusses suicide is a disparagingly incomplete diagnosis, and one that I refuse to accept. Suicide is an unspeakably horrible thing, and the show is undeniably hard to watch; but shying away from showing the truth of the subject matter would do more harm than good.

In an interview with The Vulture, producer and showrunner Brian Yorkey commented on the “bleak” nature of the show, and why the story needed to be told in the way it was told.  “We’re committed on this show to telling truthful stories about things that young people go through in as unflinching a way as we can,” he said. “The fact is, when we talk about something being ‘disgusting’ or hard to watch, often that means we are attaching shame to the experience. We would rather not be confronted with it. We would rather it stay out of our consciousness. This is why victims have a hard time seeking help. [But] we believe that talking about it is so much better than silence.”

He also addressed the decision to include the suicide scene. “We worked very hard not to be gratuitous; But we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.”

Writer Nic Sheff also commented on this decision in his article for Vanity Fair Hollywood:  “In AA, they call it playing the tape: encouraging alcoholics to really think through in detail the exact sequence of events that will occur after relapse. It’s the same thing with suicide. To play the tape through is to see the ultimate reality that suicide is not a relief at all—it’s a screaming, agonizing, horror. ” He adds, “The most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all.”

In the wake of the loss of Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and the 121 Americans on average who take their own lives every single day in this country, this concept should give us all pause. Could it be that the thing we need most right now is more material like 13 Reasons Why that shows the truth about suicide? Will more lives be saved by delving into the roots of mental illness and creating universal understanding, rather than denying it a place in the public forum? Nic Sheff thinks so. “Facing these issues head-on—talking about them, being open about them—will always be our best defense against losing another life.” For better or for worse, this show was *the* most talked-about show in 2107 and came with an enormous capacity to make an impact – and maybe that’s for the better. 

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide rates have risen almost 30% since 1999, now ranking as the 10th leading cause of death in the country, and the 3rd leading cause of death in teens and young adults specifically. A suicide takes place every 16 minutes on average, each year accounting for almost 45,000 American deaths. Preventable deaths. Following last week’s events, Columbia University professor of psychiatry Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman issued a firm call to action, saying that it’s time for America to take mental health more seriously. “Suicide is not an acceptable outcome for depression,” he declared.

13 Reasons Why reinforces that point with devastating accuracy. The goal of the show is not to provide a guide for how to properly get help for mental illness; that is the next step, and it will be paramount in the days to come. Instead, this show serves as a catalyst, whose goal is to galvanize people into a deep understanding of why they need to begin taking mental illness seriously.

Before we can expect to see positive changes taking place, society must first be aware of and thoroughly outraged by the problem. The point of the show isn’t that there is no hope; The show stirs up in us all a sense of rage that such things are still allowed to happen. It tells teens that is no longer acceptable to be silent, to be bullied, for adults to turn a blind eye, to go to school in such hostile environments, to be ignored, to received half-hearted care from counselors and therapists. It is no longer acceptable for rapists to be condoned for their actions, or for “locker room talk” to happen without consequence. Beneath the noise of teenage angst, confusion, and a seemingly hopeless plotline, the trajectory of the show states: “This is not acceptable.”

Harold S. Koplewicz, in a column for USA Today, argued that 13 Reasons Why is dangerous because it seems to perpetuate the idea that teenagers suffering from mental illness can expect no support from their community. “Teens often feel like no one cares and no one can help. This is why we must tell them the opposite: that adults do care, that they can talk to friends, that asking for help is the best thing they can do.” But how can we tell them that when it’s simply not true? Perhaps in an ideal world, but, as the show depicts, teens are often shown very little if any support from friends, parents, and counselors.

Instead of telling them that adults care, we adults need to start showing that we care by investing in their lives and giving them tools to become emotionally healthy. Instead of telling them that getting help is possible, we need to take measures to ensure that our community is prepared to provide effective help. And it doesn’t stop with our youth: we need to show this same compassion towards each and every person who is suffering in our society. There is still much work to be done within our educational, medical, and communal structure to provide more help for those suffering from mental illness.

As Catholic Christians, we have an especially important role in this new battlefront. Catholics have long defended the sanctity of life from conception to natural death; however, this doesn’t only apply to the unborn, but also to those who are struggling with a mental illness that threatens to claim their lives. In their pastoral letter Hope and Healing – spearheaded by Bishop Kevin Vann – the Bishops of California addressed this issue head-on. “We Christians have to get to know people, to befriend them, to listen generously to them, to walk with them. This is not because we have all the answers to their problems or can cure all of their afflictions, but simply because these encounters — these small acts of love and compassion, understanding, and friendship — are precisely what people need most.”

13 Reasons Why is a series that could not be more aptly timed – or more sorely needed. It addresses in a very head-on manner our inadequate efforts to remedy this modern epidemic, and acts as a bold challenge towards the current cultural landscape of indifference, neglect, and lack of awareness of mental illnesses. 

This show was not made for those struggling with mental illness; it was written for the society at large, and I believe it is nothing less than the stinging wake-up call we need to dawn from our stuporous indifference, and to begin taking action to prevent suicide and other tragedies that happen in our society on a daily basis.

***

If you or someone you know needs help, visit this suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.


About the Author

Amanda Valdovinos has been writing ever since she could hold a pencil. She earned a BS in Communications Media from JPCatholic in 2016. A true California native, she spends her free time exploring beaches, Instagramming, eating avocados, and writing for her personal blog, Miss Adventures.