Warning: mentions of suicide and sexual assault
The most tweeted about show of 2017 also inspired multiple teen suicides.
13 Reasons Why’s first season aired on March 31st, 2017. The show instantly sparked controversy amongst viewers, as the story follows the aftermath of a seventeen-year-old girl’s suicide.
The show is inspired by Jay Asher’s novel of the same title, which I read a few years before the show’s first trailer even aired. At one point in 2012, I had even filmed a YouTube video of myself reciting one of Hannah’s monologues in hopes of the author seeing it (he did!). I never imagined that this book would become the inspiration behind a wildly popular film adaptation, nor did I expect that adaptation to confuse me as much as it did.
Like many others, I’ve found myself caught between hating 13 Reasons Why and loving it. I see myself in Hannah Baker. I grew up in a community where I felt isolated and alone similar to her—the people that I found myself trusting often stabbed me in the back or found other, “better” friends. It was so easy to be alone. It was easier for me to turn off all of my emotions than try to focus on becoming happier, which is a feeling that I recognized in the last few episodes of season one of 13 Reasons Why. I think Katherine Langford did an incredible job of showing the pain and loneliness that depressed people often grapple with—but at what cost? How would showing this pain on screen prevent further suicides in young people?
On one hand, watching 13 Reasons Why did make me feel thankful to be alive. I hugged my mom a little tighter before she went to work. I opened up to my crush, who was also watching the show, about my previous struggle with depression. Telling him was incredibly relieving and has since helped me in my journey towards healing. However, watching Hannah’s suffering on screen reminded me of my own pain, likely doing more harm than good. In an article by Sophie Gilbert for The Atlantic, Gilbert writes about how the 13 Reasons writers essentially broke “every rule that exists when it comes to portraying suicide, featuring a graphic, prolonged scene of the main character’s death in the final episode.” Showing this scene on television normalizes suicide and may even inspire viewers to attempt to end their lives in a similar way.
I was curious to know if this scene and others did, in fact, increase teen suicide rates, so I dove into some statistics about 13 Reasons. According to a publication in a JAMA Internal Medicine research paper, the phrase “how to commit suicide” was searched 26% above average after the show’s premiere. It should be noted that phrases like “suicide prevention” and “suicide hotline” simultaneously rose, implying that the show also encouraged viewers to contact suicide support groups. As a filmmaker who wants to create projects about mental health, knowing that the search term “how to commit suicide” rose in popularity after the premiere of 13 Reasons makes me want to steer away from the topic altogether. But the truth is that the show did have some positive outcomes and brought attention to a serious issue. In my opinion, shows about mental health are integral to creating a more stable, empathetic society, but writers need to focus on solution-based storytelling. For example, rather than glorifying Hannah’s suicide, shows like 13 Reasons should also show the benefits of reaching out for help.
When I heard that a second season of 13 Reasons Why was in production, I was slightly disappointed but not surprised. My dismay stems from a fear that season two may be more helpful than harmful; however, after watching the trailer, I’m not sure exactly what the showrunners are aiming for. Like everyone else, I crave justice for Hannah and Jessica. I want to watch Alex’s character growth as he begins his recovery. But I don’t want redemption arcs for the characters that made Hannah’s life a living hell.
The trailer for season two features Bryce, the character who sexually assaulted Hannah in the first season of the show. One clip shows him testifying in court and befriending the others responsible for Hannah’s death, and the other features a close-up of the word “rapist” painted on his locker. The clip of Bryce testifying makes me nervous. More often than not, girls who report sexual assault are not taken seriously and/or their assailants are not properly prosecuted. If 13 Reasons Why allows Bryce to walk away without proper conviction (or even just be the focus of a typical character redemption arc), viewers may be led to believe that reporting sexual assault isn’t worth their time. We saw this in the first season when Hannah attempted to talk to her high school counselor about being raped and he dismissed her claims. I’m glad that 13 Reasons recognized this problem with our society’s constant failure to believe and defend victims of sexual assault, but I think that it's important for the show to feature Bryce’s conviction and punishment. Here’s my message to the 13 Reasons showrunners: if you truly do want to create entertainment that helps prevent suicide in young viewers, you must communicate the idea that assailants are punished for wrong behavior. Your audience should not feel completely hopeless, even if on-screen characters are.
Through the research that I’ve done for this article, I’ve been able to form a stronger opinion on my thoughts and feelings about the show. I respect the dedication of the writers and creative team to create entertainment that is socially relevant and shines light on a sad reality, but I think in order to truly use the show to prevent future suicides, they need to use the second season to show that there truly is hope for those who feel like their voices aren’t being heard.
I look forward to watching the second season of the show and sharing my thoughts and feelings on it. I encourage everyone to visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ for help if you are dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts.
Ting Ting Chen