A note from Kristen:
I had the opportunity to get a sneak preview of the now insanely popular Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why and while I found it to be a great show with a lot of talking points for parents to have with their teens, the show has not been without criticism. Some parents feel that it sensationalizes suicide, while others don’t feel their kids see the extreme behavior that’s depicted in the movie. I’m not here to argue either point (but will be happy to if you want to get into a conversation) but rather to offer you a unique point of view from the daughter of a close friend. Tierney is a 20-year-old college student, who is (and always has been) an extremely wise and profound young lady. I hope you will welcome her and her point of view on how she viewed 13 Reasons Why.
13 Reasons Why… Not
My newsfeed is always littered with opinions – constant commenting on issues ranging from politics to the opioid epidemic to which celebrity is doing what or which diet works the best. Recently, the dominant topic is the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”.” Social media discussion about the series is everywhere, most of it of the same opinion: the series is a raw, accurate representation of the obstacles today’s youth face in high school and of suicide. I dare to disagree.
If there’s anyone who doesn’t know the premise: Protagonist Hannah is a teenager who kills herself. Before doing so, she records a series of 13 tapes, each shining the spotlight on someone who wronged her and upon whom she posthumously pins her suicide. All of the tapes name a fellow student as a “reason” for her suicide, and that is where the problem lies. 13 Reasons Why trivializes suicide, underplays what I believe should be the main point (the way sexual assault and mental illness are dealt with in our society), and makes the disturbing statement that someone’s suicide can be blamed on other people.
My biggest gripe about 13 Reasons’ portrayal of suicide is the message that someone else is to blame. Anyone who has experienced losing a loved one to suicide knows that the question “Why?” neither goes away, nor is it EVER answered. Suicide is a tragic choice made by the person who commits the act and only that person. The reason it is so hard to understand the person’s motives is because they are internal and linked to mental illness. 13 Reasons attempts to explain suicide and, unfortunately, it fails. The fact of suicide still remains; it is the result of a mental illness. To solve any issue, its root needs to be understood. In the case of suicide, that root is the treatment of mental illness…or the lack thereof.
13 Reasons recognizes that suicide is a serious issue that needs to be discussed, and I applaud the desire of the show’s creators to bring the conversation to the forefront. However, suicide is not the inevitable result of a series of tragedies. The show is doing exactly what it shouldn’t if its aim is to accurately and thoughtfully communicate the gravity of suicide and its cause – mental illness. What should be discussed is how we can erase the stigma of mental illness and its treatment, not how we should blame others for suicide…even when their actions are deplorable.
Mental illnesses are too often thought of as perpetual negative emotions rather than the chemical imbalances they truly are. Illness is associated with treatment, and the current treatment for mental illness is subpar. People feel shame, guilt, embarrassment, and fear when they come forward. Treatment is hard, long, expensive, and requires lots of experimentation. All of this deters sufferers from getting help. Left untreated, those with a mental illness are more susceptible to the consequences of life’s hardships and tragedies. Then, bullying, assault, and the disbelief from support systems do contribute to feelings of worthlessness, despair, and the desire to no longer exist.
Of course, a counter argument would mention Bryce, a repulsive criminal, a rapist. His final rape, the rape of Hannah, is what seems to really push her over the edge. Bryce should absolutely be punished, and hatred towards him is expected; I feel it myself. However, rape can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), one of the most underrecognized and untreated mental illnesses. Hannah’s initial depression is left untreated, which leaves her open to the pain of bullying and the PTSD resulting from the rape.
And while we’re on the subject of rape, that’s another topic 13 Reasons fails to adequately address. Bryce rapes two girls and is never punished. When confronted, he smugly admits he has raped and says the girls he assaulted are at fault. He is not ashamed of what he is done and seems to feel stronger, more powerful because he has stripped two people of their autonomy. Hannah is seen talking to a counselor; she hints at the rape she survived and the counselor downplays it. He goes so far as to suggest that Hannah willingly had sex with someone and regrets it. Bryce’s feelings of power, Hannah’s fear to outright say she survived rape, and the counselor’s initial thoughts being about what Hannah could’ve done are the serious issues here and they fall under the radar. First of all, rape is too often associated with sexuality. Yes, rape is forced sex but it is not about sexuality, it is about power. This misunderstanding feeds directly into the second problem, the fear of survivors to come forward and ask for help. Thirteen Reasons mentions this, but only briefly. This is a missed opportunity and a major flaw since it’s the perfect platform to address and explore these issues.
Ultimately, my issue with 13 Reasons is not the substance, it’s the spin. The “causes” of suicide are inaccurate and incomplete, and the resulting conversation about suicide follows suit. Additionally, there is no discussion of mental illness which could have highlighted the gaps in current treatment options. 13 Reasons is extremely influential among high school and college-aged people, a population is disproportionally afflicted by sexual assault and society’s response to it. With such a perfect platform to discuss such a massive issue, the show should’ve done so. The fact that rape was so vividly shown, and that there even was a scene about how hard it is for survivors to be believed, makes this failure even more infuriating. The issue is mentioned and then glossed over, only perpetuating misconceptions about rape and further minimizing the struggles involved with reporting it.
While I do believe the creators of 13 Reasons Why had good intentions, the end result misses the mark. I urge readers to use the points I’ve outlined in their conversations about the series. 13 Reasons’ influence is so powerful; now let’s make it meaningful.
About Tierney Rojas: Tierney Rojas is a sophomore at Widener University where she majors in nursing. Tierney is a passionate advocate for women’s health and mental health issues and awareness, particularly among her peers.