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CS5: 13 Reasons Why: Romanticizing Mental Illness in Media

Since its release, Thirteen Reasons Why has been the subject of concern in the world of mental health mainly because of how suicide is depicted in a way that sensationalizes and romanticizes it.

Written by Sania Ahmad

Spoiler alert and trigger warning: mentions suicide, self-harm, sexual assault, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety.

13 Reasons Why: Romanticizing Mental Illness in Media

Shortly after it was first released on Netflix in 2017, the live-action version of the Thirteen Reasons Why novel originally written by Jay Asher gained worldwide attention for its unique storyline revolved around the subject of teen suicide. With four seasons out, the show has managed to cover some very important topics in a rather, dare I say, controversial manner. Since its release, Thirteen Reasons Why has been the subject of concern in the world of mental health mainly because of how suicide is depicted in a way that sensationalizes and romanticizes it. 

13 Reasons Why follows a long literary (and misogynistic) tradition of rape  and suicide

Shortly after it was first released on Netflix in 2017, the live-action version of the Thirteen Reasons Why novel originally written by Jay Asher gained worldwide attention for its unique storyline revolved around the subject of teen suicide. With four seasons out, the show has managed to cover some very important topics in a rather, dare I say, controversial manner. Since its release, Thirteen Reasons Why has been the subject of concern in the world of mental health mainly because of how suicide is depicted in a way that sensationalizes and romanticizes it. 

Thirteen Reasons Why follows Clay Jensen on his journey of learning the truth of his friend, Hannah Baker, and her suicide via seven cassette tapes left behind by her, recollecting the thirteen situations that led to her demise. The show makes it seem like Hannah is getting all this attention and love after her death, which is dangerous for people, especially young adults–the target audience of the show–to see because it practically belittles death in general and doesn’t shine much light on the finality of it. As the show goes on for more seasons, the audience gets more and more insight into each of the main characters and their stories as well. While that may seem like a good thing, it just adds to more subjects getting sensationalized such as sexual abuse, substance abuse, and self-harm. The show then dives into court trials and even murders, seeming to have wanted to show the ‘butterfly effect’ of suicide and how it can change other’s lives as well. 

Although the show doesn’t mention anything in-depth about mental illness or Hannah’s diagnosis, it’s safe to say that she suffers from major depressive and generalized anxiety disorders. You can tell by her extremely impulsive actions such as chopping her hair off, clothing herself in large and dark articles, and ultimately, killing herself. Furthermore, her reluctance to socialize with others and her hesitation to confront her issues signals anxiety. The idea around Thirteen Reasons Why becoming a TV show was proposed by actress, singer, and song-writer, Selena Gomez, who has since then become the executive producer. Gomez has always been very vocal about her battle with depression and anxiety, which may be why she pushed so hard for this show to get seen by the general public. In an interview, Gomez was asked about the show’s repercussion and replied with, “backlash would come no matter what because suicide is not an easy subject to talk about.” Unfortunately, the show fails to actually raise awareness about mental illness and ultimately does more harm than good. Romanticism of mental illness and related situations, such as suicide, is very common and equally troubling in media. 13 Reasons Why is no exception. Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized anxiety should have been talked about since it’s very important to know what it is. Depression, the common cold of mental illness, is typically caused by a dramatic change in one’s levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter in charge of sleep, appetite, mood, and inhibiting pain. Low serotonin levels put one at higher risk for suicide. Similarly, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by a neurotransmitter except for this time it’s cortisol, the transmitter that controls stress. Anxiety is designated by persistent worrying, inability to sleep or relax, difficulty concentrating, and headaches. It is often associated with depression since they do typically go hand-in-hand. This show does nothing to actually combat mental illness and related conditions. As a matter of fact, studies have proven that watching 13 Reasons Why could essentially trigger depression and it has in many teens, which we will cover in a later paragraph. The main point of criticism was the fact that suicide is depicted as a way to seek revenge in the drama, making it seem like Hannah wanted to ruin the lives of those who hurt her rather than actually want hers to end. She constantly blames everyone else for her difficulties throughout the show, occasionally evaluating her own shortcomings and that too, most times justifying them when the others don’t receive the same energy. Suicide isn’t a tool for revenge. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States and millions of youth contemplate it daily. Heck, it even seems that Hannah wasn’t even suicidal but rather wanted to prove a point and get the last word. The show introduced Hannah as a bold and assertive girl but throughout it never really showed her standing up for herself. The intent seems to be to pity Hannah, but it’s important to remember that she wasn’t completely innocent and wasn’t exactly a victim. The second season of the show does a good job at showcasing that since it provides the audience with the backstory of each of the characters during Bryce’s trial. Lastly, the show portrays seeking help from adults as useless since practically all the adults Hannah had come in contact with, such as the school counselor, do little to nothing to help her. Although it’s not her fault that no adult realized and provided her with mental health resources, it’s important to know that if you’re persistent and talk about your feelings openly, someone is bound to help you. 

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Suicide rates have a 28.9% increase among U.S. youth ages 10-17 in the month (April 2017) following the show’s release. They cannot make a causal link between the observed suicidal rates and the release of 13 Thirteen Reasons Why and it doesn’t show definitive proof, but it isn’t removed from suspicion. Why? Because two girls passed away from suicide days apart after watching the show.

The families of the deceased Bella Herndon and Priscilla Chiu, who were both teenagers battling with depression while they were watching the show, have claimed that the show is to blame for the deaths of the girls, who watched it only a few days before they died. Since then, people have been urging Netflix to remove the show from its platform or at least label it as mature content and the only response was the removal of the suicide scene, in which Hannah slit her wrists in a bathtub. However, even after so much backlash, 13 Reasons Why continued for three more seasons and finally got cancelled after the fourth one.

Yes, the Netflix original show Thirteen Reasons Why glorifies mental illness. Suicide is typically not planned and portraying it as a revenge scheme sort of gist invalidates millions of people who we’ve lost to mental illness. It’s not a joke. At the end of it all, the show does a good job at initiating the conversation around mental health however it’s important to know that your life is worth more than just thirteen reasons. If there are thirteen reasons why, there are also thirteen hundred reasons why not.


HELP IS AVAILABLE. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

FOR US RESIDENTS: CALL 800-273-8255 TO REACH THE 24-HOUR SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE.

FOR THE REST OF THE HOTLINES PLEASE CLICK HERE.

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