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13 Reasons Why- An Arrow That Didn’t Hit The Bulls-eye

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Delhi South chapter.

On 31st March, 2017 Netflix released ‘13 Reasons Why ’, a drama series based on the best-selling novel by Jay Asher. The series narrates the story of a teenager named Clay Jensen, played by Dylan Minnette, who returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it, lying on his porch. Inside the box he discovers a group of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford, his classmate and crush, who tragically committed suicide two weeks earlier. On tape, Hannah records an emotional audio diary, detailing the thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Through Hannah and Clay’s dual narratives, ‘13 Reasons Why’ weaves an intricate and heart-rending story of confusion and desperation that deeply indulges the viewers. This show, which aimed at spreading awareness about issues like bullying, sexual assault, rape and depression, saw an unparalleled popularity and created a firestorm of interest from tweens, teens, parents, educators and mental health professionals. The show was further nominated at the Golden Globe Award and also won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series. Ever since ‘13 Reasons Why’ hit the airwaves, they were able to successfully gain a huge viewership to spawn three subsequent seasons on Netflix.

Despite all these feathers in the cap, the show got a lot of eyeballs, and was no stranger to scrutiny. Experts were deeply concerned that the book and the show may have the opposite of the intended awareness-raising effect, and may impart viewers with wrong takeaway lessons. Ultimately, the entire premise of the story goes against all the accepted practices for how to address suicide responsibly in the mass media. ‘13 Reasons Why’ is essentially one long suicide note that makes it seem as though killing yourself is a viable coping mechanism when you feel hopeless or in despair; that it’s a glamorous way to get the attention you’ve been seeking (by never being forgotten) or the revenge you’ve been dreaming of; and that parents and guidance counselors are inept, out of touch, and unable to help you when you’re in trouble. Within weeks, however, mental health professionals began raising serious concerns about the YA-targeted show’s portrayal of suicide in particular—these professionals were concerned that the depiction could induce suicidal thoughts or conduct in vulnerable adolescents. The criticism centered around the possibility of ‘suicide contagion’ (or copycat suicides) among young adults. ‘Suicide contagion’ is a phenomena in which exposure to suicide within a family, among friends, or through the media may encourage suicidal behavior. It also commonly goes by the name of ‘Werther Effect’, named after the young protagonist of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1774 novel,  The Sorrows of Young Werther. In the novel, Werther falls in love with a beautiful young girl named Charlotte, who is already engaged to another man. Convinced that the only way to resolve the romantic triangle is for one of the three to die, Werther shoots himself in the head. Shortly after the novel was published, young men reportedly began committing suicide in the same manner, causing Goethe’s book to be banned in several countries. Many people also complained that the show glamorized suicide, and that the bathtub scene, in particular, violated current journalistic guidelines for reporting on suicide.

Researchers found that, among adolescents and teens, 195 additional suicides occurred during the nine months after the release of the first season of ‘13 Reasons Why’ on Netflix. A lot of teenagers could relate to the story of Hannah and what she was going through, owing to the fact that the series dealt with mental health issues which are widely common among young adults. Hence, this was speculated to be one of the main reasons behind the increased suicide rate.

  In April 2017, the National Association of School Psychologists released a statement warning about the potential adverse effects of the series, and the organization also sent a letter to school mental health professionals. The Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology (SCCAP) released a similar statement and also criticized the depiction of ineffectual mental health professionals—notably, high school guidance counsellor Kevin Porter played by Derek Luke, who fails Hannah when she seeks his help. 

Regardless of the gory and the gruesome ensemble of the series, Holly Lem and Josephine Kim, faculty members of Harvard Graduate School of Education, claim that there are a few important silver linings of this show towards which we should not turn a blind eye. The series once again reminds us that parents, even though they care immensely about their children, are unaware about their offspring’s’ frustrations, insecurities, fears, and everyday life battles. The biggest takeaway for parents as well as teachers is that things may not always be as they appear when it comes to our students’ and children’s private lives. This series highlights the crucial responsibility of teachers and school counsellors to conceptualize students as whole individuals. Between standardized testing and meeting MCAS requirements, there is a tendency for schools to develop tunnel vision, solely focused on performance and achievement, while social and emotional wellbeing can get placed on the sidelines. The show explicitly talks about environmental and societal factors that could inflict harm to a person’s mental and physical well-being and even though the show was not being sensitive while it was portraying it, we as viewers should be more responsible and acknowledge the fact that our children are exposed to these factors, if not consuming them. So, rather than expending energy and time debating what’s horrific about this series, we should take full advantage of its popularity and the attention it is receiving and utilize it as a tool to open doors for difficult conversations. This show, in all of its troublesome ways, is really a wake-up call for all of us to take the power of relationships very seriously and to discern that attuned, responsive and candid relationships can be one of the most powerful tools in helping with the prevention of suicide. 

There needs to be conversations about mental health and suicide if we ever want to destigmatize mental illness. But if visual media keeps romanticizing trauma under the guise of heroism, then we will always be stuck on conversations about the representations of mental illness, and never mental illness itself. If there would be no conscientious handling of sensitive topics by the media then it will be easier for people to jump into assumptions being oblivious of the fact that one’s assumptions and the truth dine at totally separate tables.

Florina Harris

Delhi South '26

Florina Harris is a 1st year Psychology student. You would usually find her siting under a tree, reading a book or scribbling something incessantly in her diary. She is a budding writer and likes to turn her fantasies and thoughts into words and words into articles. She strives to be a beaming ray of sunshine, an apricity during the frost-bound days.