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Is 13 Reasons Why Essential Or Controversial? It All Depends Which Lens You're Looking Through

04/05/2017 12:38 BST | Updated 04/05/2017 12:38 BST
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In response to criticism relating to its portrayal of suicide, Netflix has reportedly added more warnings to its controversial series, 13 Reasons Why. But will that protect those most likely to be negatively impacted?

I'm no film critic (disclosure number one) but I finished watching 13 Reasons Why this weekend and found it breath-taking, uncomfortable, heart-wrenching and, as I am sure the following weeks will confirm, unforgettable. It does everything that art should do. And then some.

As a parent, I took a lot away from it - because although we have all lived through teenage years, memories fade and society changes. And it is certainly helpful to reinforce the potential enormity of seemingly minor issues. It shows us that it's not just about any one issue, it's about a sideways snowstorm of shit that young people might face every day, and how stacking one seemingly minor event on top of another can create an avalanche that engulfs life in the classroom, online and in your head.

So it certainly gave me fresh perspective on what today's teenagers might be going through.

But I am not a teenager (disclosure number two) or indeed somebody who has experienced mental illness or trauma so intense that it has driven me to suicide ideation (disclosure number three). I can only try to put myself in those shoes and view it through their eyes, but, as much as I try, I can't help but worry about the negative impact that watching 13 Reasons Why might have.

Take away the suicide and it's simply a very educational and thought-provoking drama about teenage issues and concerns that will no doubt create empathy among young peers. So through the teenage lens it makes you wonder if suicide was in fact the point, or simply an engaging way through which to tell a story of teenage trauma.

Through the parental lens, it teaches me stop and think about what teenagers go through and the potential impact that these issues may have.

But what does it do to the person at the centre of the story? The person who may be feeling helpless and hopeless. Will warnings and signposting help them, or should the story offer a more obvious glimmer of hope?

Final disclosure, I am no mental health professional, so I asked someone who is.

Dr Andrew Mayers, an academic psychologist at Bournemouth University who specialises in mental health said "I think we do need to warn viewers about potentially distressing content, perhaps saying 'the following programme contains content that deals with extreme emotional difficulties and suicidal thoughts that some viewers may find distressing'.

"At the end of the film, an announcement is needed to tell viewers where they can get help. We need to make it OK to talk about suicide. There is often a misconception that if we mention suicide to someone who is deeply distressed or showing signs of mental illness, we will put the 'idea' into their head. This is not true. In many cases, that thought is already there. We just need to allow the person talk about it, so we can explore the reasons for living".

Looking at it through the final lens - somebody who might relate to the central character, Hannah - can we say that the programme does this?

It certainly generates conversation - you only have to look at Twitter. But is it really exploring the reasons for living? Does it really tap into the complexities and signs of mental illness? Does it show people can get help? And, importantly, does it give people hope?

Perhaps we do need more conversation about suicide but I'd argue that we need to throw more hope into that conversation. Real hope though. Not the fantasy that having taken your own life the world will be talking about you. They won't. Hannah Baker is not real. There will be no TV show. People will be in despair, there will be sadness, but what will change for the better? Justice won't be done. In fact, only a major injustice. And that is the fact that the lights will have truly gone out - for good - on a person who once had a future. Even if it didn't feel like it at that time. You do not have to go through with it to find support, hope and to inspire change.

Suicide isn't the beginning of the story. It is the end of the story. And we shouldn't forget that.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Rethink Mental Illness advice and information service is open 9:30 - 4pm Monday - Friday - 0300 5000 927. They have over 100 factsheets with easy to understand information on a variety of issues related to mental health
  • CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is a registered charity, which exists to prevent male suicide in the UK. Call 0800 58 58 58 or visit thecalmzone.net
  • The Mix is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@getconnected.org.uk
  • HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41