Netflix released its newest original series 13 Reasons Why on March 31, and it quickly became the company’s most popular show on social media ever.
For 13 episodes, the viewer observes the aftermath of the suicide of Hannah Baker, a friendly character with a witty sense of humor and a knack for being highly relatable.
The series begins soon after her death, as a shy Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a box of seven double-sided tapes recorded by Hannah explaining the 13 reasons why she committed suicide.
Clay listens to the 13 recordings throughout the series, each one focusing on a different person in Hannah’s life who she claims contributed to her suicide.
The plot is original and the acting superb, but one-by-one, mental health organizations and suicide prevention agencies began issuing warnings and coming out against the new series, chief among these being the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
The NASP stated in a press release, “We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.”
As journalists, we follow a strict code of ethics and guidelines when reporting on matters of suicide, rape and other sensitive topics, and 13 Reasons Why breaks every single one of those guidelines.
For this reason, the Scroll condemns the explicit depiction of suicide in entertainment and calls upon filmmakers to handle portrayals of disturbing content with dignity and sensitivity.
Disturbing scenes in TV shows and movies like those depicted in 13 Reasons Why continue to become increasingly prevalent as audiences move to online streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Video.
These streaming services and others like them have evolved over the years to begin producing original content exclusively for their customers.
In some cases, these services have allowed creators to have full control over their content.
Successful programs like The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Video and The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu thrive, in part, because they are allowed to ignore certain precedents on a paid streaming service most movies and television shows are expected to follow elsewhere.
The problem with 13 Reasons Why is not that it ignores the precedent; the precedent has been ignored before. The problem is that it ignores decades of clinical and psychological research aimed at properly handling and preventing suicide.
Profound falsehoods about suicide permeate the show from its first episode to its last and lead audiences not properly educated on the issue to arrive at erroneous conclusions.
For example, while 13 Reasons Why attempts to bring awareness to the issue of suicide, it oddly ignores any meaningful discussion on the topic of mental illness — whether anxiety, bi-polar disorder or depression.
According to the University of Washington School of Social Work’s Mental Health Reporting webpage, more than 90 percent of those who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. But in the series, mental illness is never seriously demonstrated.
Instead of presenting an important culprit in over 90 percent of real-world suicide cases, the show instead blames the suicide on negative circumstances in the main character’s life.
To seriously broadcast the idea that suicide is somehow justified as a remedy for traumatic or difficult life circumstances or to even suggest it as a legitimate option in any case is morally reprehensible, if not unspeakable.
Then, in a seeming effort to justify the intensity of the suicide scene, the show seems to have presented other distressing subjects more explicitly as a way to make the show’s suicide appear rational.
Katherine Langford, the actor who plays Hannah Baker in the show, said the script deliberately suggested her character’s rape be graphic, according to Beyond the Reasons, a behind-the-scenes documentary of the show.
The script directed videographers to “stay on Hannah’s face longer than is comfortable.”
It should be made clear that sexual assault and rape are inexcusable and victims of these cruel acts deserve understanding and compassion. However, not even traumatic events like these should ever justify the act of ending one’s life.
Unfortunately, the main rape scene in 13 Reasons Why is not the only graphically-embellished scene in the series.
In Jay Asher’s 2007 novel upon which the Netflix series is based, the author makes it clear Hannah dies by suicide, but the details of the event in the book are sparse, leaving best assumptions pointing to a drug overdose.
As the book is adapted into a Netflix series, the story is intentionally changed to intensify the scene.
As a result, 13 Reasons Why arguably depicts the most detailed and excruciating suicide ever seen on film.
Of course, an experienced, mature audience might be able to endure this, but a mature audience is not the main viewership of the series.
According to the Health Encyclopedia of the University of Rochester’s Medical Center, a young person’s brain doesn’t form proper connections from the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, to the pre-frontal cortex, the decision-making center, until they approach age 25.
In other words, the viewers targeted most by the series — teenagers and young adults — are particularly susceptible to lapses in judgment and emotional stress that can lead to suicidal ideation.
Despite the show’s ambition to present suicide directly and authentically, 13 Reasons Why falls short not just because of its explicit content made for a young audience, but because it ignores the realities of mental illness, glorifies and justifies suicidal actions, fails to present viable alternatives to suicide and promotes suicide contagion.
In striving to bring awareness to an important issue, Netflix’s latest high school drama disregards psychological research and accuracy in favor of shock value and false anecdotes.
It would be irresponsible to recommend 13 Reasons Why to those dealing with suicidal thoughts or feelings and unwise to recommend it to anyone else.