If you are considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They’re good people.
As Pepsi was recently reminded, advertisement is hard. When it comes to media, what’s received is often just as important as what is intended. This is something that the makers of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, an original series based on a book by the same name, would do well to consider. The story follows Clay, a high school student who finds seven cassette tapes left by his friend Hannah who recorded them before taking her own life. Each side goes out to a different person who in some way hurt Hannah, her “13 reasons” for her suicide. According to Dylan Minnette, who played Clay, the goal was to make people “more aware” of the causes of teenage suicide. Selena Gomez (yes, the girl from Wizards of Waverly Place) produced this project and said that she wanted to facilitate a conversation about teen suicide saying, “more than ever it should be talked about today.”
There is a lot I could talk about in this series. I could talk about the causal attitude it takes towards underage drinking. I could talk about the conflicting image it paints of people with same-sex attraction. I could talk about the lack of a clear message regarding drug use, or the frequent shall we say, less-than-saintly parties. But let’s be honest, teens know about that already.
They aren’t stupid, they know that stuff is out there. And it’s so prevalent in our culture that, if only for those things, I wouldn’t bother to write this post. 13 Reasons Why isn’t special because these issues feature. But it is special.
This show is special because it presents itself as giving voice to this real world issue, this often ignored reality that is part of so many teen’s lives. And the audience most impacted by it are the people I’ve dedicated my life to serving God through. For me, this is personal. These teens are my family, my brothers and sisters that I would give my life to protect. So when a series with the potential to impact them so greatly aired, naturally I was very interested. So, one tuesday night with a bag of Doritos in hand, I began the first episode. The series was well done. And for a story that you already know the ending to, the suspense was surprisingly powerful. Within two days, I had watched all 14 episodes. And my heart was broken. I walked with Hannah because I saw in her the suffering of countless young people who feel alone. And I grieved for them as the story of a girl who felt so hopeless that she didn’t want to continue living unfolded. And yes, I cried a little. Well done Netflix, you hit your mark.
But you also may have caused a lot of collateral damage in the process.
As many have observed, show presents an unrealistic outcome to suicide. The book, by comparison just told the story of a person who lost hope and wanted to be heard. It told her story and that was it. The show on the other hand weaves a revenge fantasy in which the people that hurt her are made to pay and she becomes a hero that everyone is sorry for misjudging. As someone who works with teenagers on a daily basis who are watching this show, I am genuinely afraid that young people who are struggling with the temptation to commit suicide or self harm will see this and think of it as a viable option to achieve those results. It is far easier for someone to be pushed over the edge when the edge seems kind of desirable. In the real world, suicide doesn’t have a happy ending. A white knight doesn’t take up the cause of punishing the evildoers, people don’t sit down in meetings and discuss how much they suck for treating you badly. When a person kills themselves, they are not glorified as a martyr. There is only tragedy. But if a person feels like they’re going to be vindicated by killing themselves, it’s a lot harder to help them see hope in healing. The show also makes no mention of mental illness. According to a statistic by the University of Washington School of Social Work, roughly 90% of persons who attempt to commit suicide have some form of diagnosable mental illness. At a time when our culture is just beginning to understand the importance of mental health, I do not feel it was properly handled by a show claiming to shed light on this complex problem. It’s deeply concerning to me that someone attempting to start a conversation about this real-world issue, with real world consequences, could gloss over this crucial component in the vast majority of suicide cases.
Most of all, and this absolutely infuriates me, the show which presents itself as a way to educate people who are struggling with suicide on ways to find their way out of the dark place that they’re in the paints literally every adult that Hannah relies on for support as being either cold and unfeeling, incompetent, or malicious. Well done Netflix. You have now addressed something that actually impacts people, spoken to a struggle that hurts them in the deepest part of their heart, and then conveyed to them that there is no point in doing the one thing they should actually do. How on earth can someone like me stand in front of my students and say that if they’re considering hurting themselves that they should tell somebody, that we’re going to walk with them and help them heal, that we care about them and want to protect them, if Netflix is telling them that the adults in their life are going to completely blow them off? If you disagree, I would encourage you to go back and watch the show. Look at Hannah’s parents. Look at Clay’s parents. Look at Hanna’s communications teacher. Look at the principle and his secretary (or VP, or whatever that guy was). Look at the guy who works in the convenience store. Look at the school counselor. There are so many examples of adults who either don’t care or utterly fail but not one example of someone who is actually equipped to help Hannah and bothers to try. Now try to convince a teenager to confide in adult something so painful and so personal. I guarantee you it’s not easy. The show got that very very wrong.
The show does have many positive aspects to it and I would encourage parents to watch it. It sheds light on the way is that the things we dub “bullying” can actually escalate and genuinely destroy people’s self understanding. It shows how mass communication and technology can compound the problem to the point where teens feel they cannot escape it. And it humanizes the issue of suicide by giving you a well-formed character who is likable and walking you through their story. It took something that is extremely foreign to many people and forces them to look at it as something real. And so I am grateful for the show in that regard, but I honestly wish they had given more consideration to the way it is may impact teens who are actually living in that world as well as the adults in their lives that are here to help them.
The show gets a lot right, very right. But there are also some things that it gets very very wrong, and some choices were made by the directors that I can only call irresponsible. Suicide is not something to play around with, it’s real. I want people to talk about it. I want it to be an issue that is represented in media. But not like this. Never like this.
And to teens reading this, please please please hear me out. Do not harm yourself. If you are dealing with suicidal thoughts or actions, I want you to know that the pain you’re feeling is real and it matters, but this is not an answer. Once you make that choice, you cannot unmake it. If you’re looking for revenge, this will not grant it. Do not listen to a show that treats you like an idiot, suicide only means the people that hurt you will continue living and you won’t. If relief is what you’re looking for, there are people that care about you and want to help you get through this. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 1-800-273-8255.
You matter. And not just to me.