“It has to get better. The way we treat each other, and, look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.” -Clay Jenson, 13 Reasons Why protagonist.
On March 31st, 2017, the show “13 Reasons Why,” a new Netflix series based on the best-selling book of the same name by Jay Asher, premiered on Netflix. Both the series and novel convey the raw emotion that comes along with suicide, specifically teen suicide. The creators of “13 Reasons Why" hope to show viewers what suicide, rumors, and bullying, can do to an individual’s life and those around them. “13 Reasons Why” follows the story of teenager Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford, who leaves behind seven double-sided cassette tapes before committing suicide. Initially, Hannah’s high school peers seem normal, typical, fitting into general stereotypes that exist in high schools across the nation. However, once one rumor leaks out about Hannah, a snowball effect is created. Her peers were for the most part unaware as to how these unfortunate events would be detrimental to her life.
The shows’ creators sometimes pull from personal experience to portray their message; writer Nic Sheff, for instance, is no stranger to self-harm. A longtime crystal-meth user and the subject of his father’s best-selling memoir, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, Sheff himself once tried to take his own life. He brought that experience to his role as writer of Episode 6 of 13 Reasons Why, and to the op-ed below, in which Sheff shares why the series thought it was vital to show Hannah Baker’s entire journey—even its very upsetting end.
“When it comes to suicide, I believe the message should be exactly the same. Facing these issues head-on—talking about them, being open about them—will always be our best defense against losing another life. I’m proud to be a part of a television series that is forcing us to have these conversations, because silence really does equal death. We need to keep talking, keep sharing, and keep showing the realities of what teens in our society are dealing with every day. To do anything else would be not only irresponsible, but dangerous,” said Sheff.
Public assumptions based on the shows’ source as well as the involvement of pop singer Selena Gomez surprised critics as they discovered the depth of the series, which deals unflinchingly with sexual assault and teenage suicide. However, some viewers and mental health organizations have started to question whether “13 Reasons Why” glamorizes suicide—and if the series went too far in depicting the traumatic act on-screen.
The shows’ power and controversy reached Nantucket recently, when Nantucket High School principal Dr. Buckey sent out an email to the parents of students at NHS in order to direct awareness to parents whose students may have watched or are watching the show. The email suggested that parents discuss the show with their kids regarding the sensitive topics that are addressed in each episode.
He stated in the email, “I think it raises awareness of the high school experience for some students and encourages us all to be aware of the mental health challenges that face our society at large.”
Many critics across America, including psychologists and some who have struggled with depression, have claimed that the show mistakenly portrays suicide as a way to gain control and sends the wrong message that every life can be saved with kindness rather than with professional help.
“13 Reasons Why” has also drawn comments from high school students themselves; 18 year old Jaclyn Grimm remarked in an article against the series, “being kind isn’t a bad message, but in the context of the show it becomes complicated.”
Although many feel that the show inappropriately glamorizes suicide, others feel that the show effectively gains awareness and fosters accountability in the minds of viewers. As Dr. Buckey added, “I think the show has the potential to engage families in some conversations that can be difficult. I do believe it is creating awareness.”
The overall point of “13 Reasons Why” was intended to study how we treat one another, with special focus on the negative aspects of human behavior portrayed most strongly during adolescence. It analyzes the “small” aggressions people commit which in turn cause unthinkable pain to others, as well as the larger ones that become increasingly more painful when we are told we must “move on” from them. The show is also a resolute, realistic perspective on challenging topics including sexual assault, depression and suicide. Controversy or not, the show has started conversations about these harder-to-hear topics everywhere. However, as it has been suggested by many psychologists, be cautious before watching this series.