The plotline seems familiar. Girl likes boy, boy likes girl, and they are both navigating their feelings, hormones, and social interactions trying to make sense of their high school experience. Except this time, the complexities of mental health are thrown in the mix.
Based on the book by Jay Asher, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why became an instant hit when it was released earlier this spring, with both audiences and critics praising the show’s production, cast, and improvements upon its source material. However, the show has also generated a great deal of controversy, as it takes the conversation of mental health to levels we don’t usually come to expect from a TV show.
The most tweeted about show in 2017 centers around a group of high school students and their classmate Hannah Baker, who takes her own life after suffering a series of demoralizing events brought on by some of her peers. The show graphically displays Hannah Baker’s suicide, rape, and cases of bullying, which is why the show has attracted such a great deal of attention and controversy.
Hannah’s death—which strays away from the overdose suicide originally written in the novel— leaves nothing to the imagination, and it remains a scene that virtually breaks every rule in the media playbook when it comes to treatment of suicide. Many parents, teachers, and mental health organizations have blamed producers for trying to monetize on such a serious subject, with some going as far as saying that the show actually romanticizes mental health and suicide.
Netflix has responded by emphasizing that a number of mental-health professionals were consulted during production. They claim that Hannah’s death was portrayed in such an explicit way to show the pain it caused her family and friends, and not in an attempt to romanticize suicide by making it look serene or pretty.
“We had to balance the potential harm of showing it with the potential harm of not showing it, and having it be mysterious or avoidant,” said Dr. Helen Hsu, a clinical psychologist who worked as a consultant with the show.
Even though the show’s primary motivation in depicting Hannah’s brutal death was that it would serve as a deterrent, many suicide prevention experts believe that a show aimed at young adults should’ve dealt with suicide in a different way. Citing the explicit treatment of suicide in media after Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 as an example, they fear that the show could have a similar impact. (After Monroe’s death was reported in the media as a suicide, suicide rates that in the U.S. increased by 12 percent.)
It wasn’t until May 3rd that Netflix announced that it was adding “additional advisories” to the show. Yet, for many, this doesn’t appear to be enough. Several schools have already implemented other advisories such as warning parents of what their children are watching, and countries like New Zealand advising that the show be watched with an adult.
The show has definitely started an important conversation. And with the series recently being renewed for a second season, there is no doubt this will be a conversation we’ll be having for quite some time.
By Gabriella Nunez