'Thirteen Reasons Why' And The Dangerous Use Of Suicide As A Dramatic Device

16/06/2017 13:41

Thirteen Reasons Why, with its graphic portrayal of suicide and storyline concerning a dead protagonist given a haunting, vengeful voice from beyond the grave, has sparked an ethical debate: do the benefits of starting conversations about this most difficult of subjects outweigh the risks of inspiring copycat deaths? Stigma and the difficulty of starting a conversation about mental health are crucially important issues, particularly when the media still tends to couch its reportage in terms of "confession" and in the current climate of austerity, a place on a waiting list is the most likely offer to someone who asks for help. However, it is questionable whether a series which shows a young person committing suicide after sexual assault, then after her death talking to her tormentors and reclaiming her power, taking back control of her life is entirely laudable. It's a compelling narrative, certainly, but there is an element of triumph, and that is what is subtly so dangerous.

I have tried to kill myself, more than once. As I write this on a glorious summer's day, sitting on a train on the way to do a responsible job, I find it hard to put myself back in the shoes of someone who, seeing no way out of what seemed like a uniformly bleak future, chose no future at all. I was incredibly lucky that the NHS saved my life, but even that process was humiliating, uncomfortable and seemed as if I had found the only way to make my situation worse. I was put in a hospital gown, which did not cover me, when I was feeling most vulnerable, put in a side room alone when I most needed companionship and given a drug which made me throw up until there was nothing left (also not a side of the process generally shown in films). Nobody I knew came to see me - they were angry, and rightly so. There was no comfort, but valium when I couldn't sleep on a noisy ward. I was alone, apart from a mental health nurse whose job was not to help sort things out but to ask me if I was thinking of harming others as well as myself. My friends and family were not worried or sympathetic, they were angry - and with total justification. It was not a way out, or a way to control or even a first step on the road to recovery. It was a waste.

And this is a suicide attempt which failed - a bad mistake, but at least I survived it and can sit here feeling thankful for the hospital staff and the drugs and the person who called the ambulance. Notes and voice messages are confusing and frequently misunderstood enough when both the sender and recipient are alive and can explain themselves later - if a message is all you have left of someone you loved or liked or even hated, how many meanings can a bereaved reader find or even project onto a final missive? And even if the reasons for suicide are perfectly understood, you cannot achieve anything by dying because you will be dead. I know very well that it is almost impossible to remember this, but suicide makes victims of everyone, not just the person who dies. Hannah sent tapes to thirteen people to make them feel as if they had blood on their hands, but what the story will not show is the damage that sort of thing would inflict on them for the rest of their lives. Because being dead, Hannah could not explain, she could not control her message and she will never be able to relent.

So why am I writing? Only someone who is in a desperate, hopeless place would be contemplating suicide in the first place, so perhaps my message should be this: please let Thirteen Reasons Why reduce the stigma of talking about suicide, but please don't let it diminish the devastation caused by the act of suicide in so many ways and to so many people, for a single second.