'Groundbreaking.' 'So important'. 'Thought provoking'. 'A must watch if you want to understand more about mental health'. These were just a few of the comments which enticed me to finally watch 13 Reasons Why, one of Netflix's latest original series'. The show tells the story of high-school student Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and leaves a series of tapes assigned to each person that led her to take her own life. A depressing sounding concept, but topical and important nonetheless. From all the hype I'd seen online and heard from other people, I thought it would be the type of series I could fully sink into and cry with. So, after a week of binge-watching the thirteen episodes on my commute and in the evenings, I was left feeling disappointed and underwhelmed. At first, I couldn't work out what was missing; the acting was great, the show is perfectly cast and there are some really gritty, powerful, uncomfortable to watch scenes. By the last few episodes, I realised the problem - the show doesn't give a well-rounded enough view of the way our protagonist, Hannah, is feeling, leaving us devoid of enough empathy or compassion for her to de-stigmatise mental illness.
I haven't read the novel, so I can't comment on that, but the Netflix series tells more a story of twisted revenge than of a young girl suffering from mental illness. We see Hannah weave a complex narrative, physically creating the link between each person and event to create an intricate, detailed plot to ensure her peers' suffering. There's something about this way of telling the story which makes us feel much more compassion for the people whose lives her death and consequently the tapes affected, than for her. We're not given enough of a glimpse into the daily struggles that a young person suffering with a mental illness would face and instead are merely told these things or given a snapshot of them in short, summarised flashbacks.
The audience are, however, treated to in-depth, raw scenes focusing on the characters who Hannah blames for her death and as a result, feel more empathy for them. This almost places Hannah as a villainous character, especially in relation to Jessica (played by Alisha Boe), who is the subject of Tape 1 Side B. Jessica is Hannah's ex-best friend, who features on the tapes for believing Hannah was the cause of her breakup. Later on in the episodes, Hannah is hiding in the closet at a house party when she witnesses Jessica passing out drunk and consequently being raped by someone in her friendship group. I really struggled with this part of the story and began to lose any empathy I had built for Hannah here; she's in a room, witnessing somebody getting raped, yet does nothing to stop it. Even worse is that, rather than being honest with Jessica and telling her what had happened to her, Hannah weaves it into her complicated audiotape narrative and leaves Jessica to work it out for herself following her suicide. Once a pretty, happy-go-lucky cheerleader, Jessica is left in a constant state of uncertainty as to whether or not she really was raped, leading to alcoholism and erratic behaviour. Yes, Hannah has been the vicim of slut-shaming which puts her off speaking out, but she physically sits a few feet away and witnesses the rape when she could've stopped it; it's hard not to resent her for this.
What's also uncomfortable and critical about the way the story is depicted, is that the sequence of events and the tapes which follow as a result, give the impression that Hannah chooses suicide as a way of punishing people for being cruel. She uses the tapes to directly link her death to specific things people did or said to her, thus eroding the link between mental illness and suicide. The show ignores that people may kill themselves because of their mindset and illnesses like depression, not just because people have been cruel to them. In this sense, it almost glamourises suicide, giving the impression that there's some satisfaction to be gained in knowing that you can tell people what they did wrong and that they'll suffer from their guilt as it's too late. As Zara Larsson said, it arguably "romanticises revenge suicide and doesn't bring up mental illness or depression at all."
The show definitely brings up some issues, such as how much responsibility we can accept for other people's mindsets and actions and how much impact we have on each other. However, my conclusion is that 13 Reasons Why should not be seen as a driving force for mental illness, as it fails to accurately or sensitively depict the link between mental illness and suicide. Although not intentionally, it is somewhat an exploitation of serious issues in young people today and could have a negative impact on vulnerable, impressionable teenagers.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
- 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