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Living There is no power in death: ‘13 Reasons Why’ and knowing when it's time to let go

May. 24, 2018
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Warning: The following contains spoilers for 13 Reasons Why Season 2, as well as discussion of suicide and other sensitive subjects.

An old ex-friend of mine called me the other day and told me that she hoped that I was dead.

Funnily enough, this call occurred just as I was in the planning stages of writing this piece regarding 13 Reasons Why and its recent second season. She concealed her number of course, but it’s hard not to recognize the voice of someone you once considered one of your closests friends, even on recording.

It’s ironic, I guess—the understanding that the universe allows for certain events and circumstances in your life to transpire in the hope that maybe each of us are going to learn something from them and grow as individuals. My relationship with this individual has changed and unfortunately come to an end, and if I had been the person that I was three years ago, her statements would have definitely impacted me differently than they did today. 

My personal journey with mental health hasn’t been easy, and has brought me down a variety of different paths in life. I’ve been in some incredibly dark places, caught in moments when I believed there wasn’t a single person in the world that cared about whether or not I was there to see the sun rise the next day. I was lost for a very long time, and though there were circumstances in my life that led me to that point, a lot of my issues stemmed from my stubbornness and inability to ask someone else for help.

If you haven’t yet heard, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why just premiered its second season, filled with just as much teen drama, violence, and tough topics as the book and first season had. This season focuses on the aftermath of the suicide of Liberty High School student Hannah Baker and her family’s legal fight against the school in seeking justice for Hannah’s bullying, rape, and suicide. The school and its students grapple with a variety of other issues, including  a variety of new Polaroids showing up throughout the show, Alex’s recovery from his own suicide attempt, Justin’s addiction to heroin, and the impending plot surrounding serial rapist Bryce Walker and the mysterious clubhouse. The show climaxes with Bryce being sentenced to three months of probation, Hannah’s parents losing the court case to the school, and the possibility of a school shooting, stopped by the same group tangled up in what seems like all the drama at Liberty High School. 

Perhaps the most dangerous theme expressed in the final episode of season two is through Tyler, who is the only character on the show to truly seek help and find improvement in his life, but is immediately sexually assaulted after doing so. This once again proves 13 Reasons Why’s lack of understanding and lack of remorse when it comes to encouraging people to actually seek help and treatment, no matter what they say in their intro. 

I first read 13 Reasons Why in my freshman year of high school, and I watched the show’s first season when it premiered last year. I enjoyed the book, though after watching the show’s first season I considered myself to be one of its harshest critics. While the show is honest and blunt when it comes to discussing so many aspects of mental illness, suicide, and sexual assault, the execution of the message allows for viewers to get caught up in the dramatization and romanticization of the message while being bombarded with the overwhelming idea that though Hannah Baker is dead, she still maintains complete and total power of the school and its students. 

The problem with this idea is that it is simply false. In 13 Reasons Why, suicide is made out to be selfish and plotted out as almost a form of punishment (as executed by the almost perfect Hannah Baker).

As someone who has been down this path, I can tell you that suicide is not an act of selfishness, nor is the person attempting suicide always acting as a martyr for others in a similar circumstance. Just because you die doesn’t mean your life was flawless or that you were entirely innocent in everything that you did. I know that I am not, and I know that others aren’t either. Dying is not the art that media like 13 Reasons Why so often tries to portray it as. Those that consider suicide a viable option generally experience emotional pain each and every day, feeling so hopeless and worthless and broken that dying seems like it would be more painless than life itself. 

As someone who has been through the highs and lows of sickness, diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, I mean it when I say I would give it all back to banish those two years of my life from my memory forever and eliminate all of the little dark thoughts that have hung around. There is no glory in the act of revenge or feeling like you’ve one-upped someone by getting “the last word” or seeking revenge on them for how they hurt you. 

The biggest problem I have with this new season of 13 Reasons Why is its portrayal of Hannah’s family and peers in the aftermath of her death. Depicting characters like Clay as still being completely obsessed with Hannah (while dating another girl who also has issues with self-harm) is a hazardous ideology to amplify on such a big budget show. Suicide rates among young people across the world are on the rise, and adding to the idea that you can forever haunt somebody in your death skews the thought process surrounding suicide and mental health, making it come across as a game of revenge instead of encouraging young people to seek therapy or treatment. 

This second season was not necessary nor welcomed. Though there was honesty in the difficulty Courtney faced in coming out as gay and Alex’s grappling with surviving his own suicide attempt, the show’s integrity ended there. The fear that sexual assault survivors endure in facing their attackers, and the light sentences that convicted rapists often receive were harmful, and the power struggle between the living and the dead seems far too much like a fictional movie to be an actual portrayal of mental health and mental illness. 

I’ve seen the Facebook posts—from girls that bullied me in high school to those that have never struggled with a mental illness—praising the show’s dramatic and “raw” portrayal of the events surrounding suicide, all of which beg others to just be “kind to one another.” Yet, in this world and age of the internet, there is so much room for negative spaces to form underneath the false personas we have of people. If we want to start making mental illness a priority in this country, we cannot continue to glamorize the ideas of death, teenage ignorance and innocence, and the “revenge ideology” so often portrayed in shows like 13 Reasons Why. We need to push for resources for young people, not just play a 30-second clip before episodes that contain graphic depictions of assault, rape, and suicide; otherwise, we risk the normalization of seeking violent forms of revenge like suicide or shooting up a school, or even calling ex-friends acting on pure emotion and hurt and telling them you wish they were dead. Reactionary thought as depicted in this show doesn’t shed a light, it encourages more darkness. 

We have to talk about these issues before we make anymore tapes or photographs glamorizing what it is not.