Warning: This blog post contains references to a series depicting teen suicide and my explanation of why I am very concerned about it. If you read this and find the content distressing, please ask for help. See your GP, call LifeLine if reading in Australia, and don’t suffer alone. There is always hope and help somewhere.
I have been wanting to write this post for some weeks now, after putting myself through watching the complete series of “13 Reasons Why” on Netflix®. I put myself through watching the series as I felt it important to understand what my patients were talking about. As a psychiatrist with extensive experience treating adolescents with mental illness, I want to offer advice about how to handle emotions experienced after being exposed to this series. In particular I am deeply concerned about the effects of the final episode. I was horrified at the scene where the main protagonist, Hannah Baker is shown after she completes suicide. I was horrified as a mother and as a psychiatrist. If I was horrified, how would a vulnerable viewer manage?
It has been written by others that the show wastes a valuable opportunity to discuss mental illness and distress. It chooses entertainment and controversy over an opportunity to show the devastating effects of suicide on family and friends left behind, and how so many things can be done before this tragic final outcome. “13 Reasons Why” is dangerous and misleading. The creators have been largely irresponsible for not advising viewers what do do with their distress. They have also failed to depict accurately a person with mental illness and how they would behave.
So, here are my 10 reasons why this series is so wrong:
1. Some of my patients are talking about it in their therapy sessions and they are not happy.
Yes, the show has shaken them up, but they are not happy for other reasons. In particular, they feel the series is inaccurate in its portrayal of a person who decides to take their own life. They feel it causes another layer of stigma that people who commit suicide do it for attention or revenge. Patients who have had experiences with losing others to suicide see the depiction as disrespectful towards what is profound suffering and a desperate act at a time of utter helplessness. I fear for patients who are not in therapy and don’t have an opportunity to discuss how this show made them feel.
2. The series plays out like a horror story or murder mystery, when really it is depicting the tragedy of suicide.
By choosing sensationalism and entertainment, keeping viewers engrossed in the series, the creators have misled the audience. Suicide is never sensational or entertaining. It is an awful downward spiral that is often secretive and terrifying. The attempts to understand why someone suicides almost never lead to resolution, even when there is a suicide note. It is generally inexplicable, and certainly can’t be wrapped up in 13 neat episodes.
3. The main protagonist, Hannah Baker, doesn’t have depression
This is the issue I have most concern with. Hannah Baker is most definitely distressed by what has happened to her, and she is sad sometimes. She is also angry, happy, vengeful and totally nasty at other times. She pushes people away when they try to help. She tests out limits of others. She forces people to abandon her, such as Clay, and her school counsellor, to see how they behave. She is manipulative. She has a very poor sense of self. She shows good self care, can enjoy events, and appropriately feel very distressed by others. Yes we talk about how some people can hide their depression, but this is not a case of a person ‘wearing a mask’. She is not depressed. It is unfair to depict this as a case of depression. It is unfair to those who are depressed as they would not relate to her behaviour and demeanor. People with depression would not have the motivation and ability to plan the content for 13 audio tapes, let alone create the content, and scheme about who receives them.
4. Most people who commit suicide after a traumatic event decide to die because of shame, not to seek revenge.
Unfortunately, victims of trauma and bullying can often, inappropriately, blame themselves for somehow having a part in the act inflicted upon them. They can feel immense shame about what has happened to them, and therapy for victims after such an event would focus on this shame. This series depicts that suicide can be used as a way of enacting revenge on perpetrators. Whilst this may be the case in some suicides, most who have suicidal thoughts and ideation also feel very hopeless and have low self worth. They are more likely to inappropriately blame themselves and feel the world is better of without them, than carry out a well planned act to make a perpetrator suffer.
5. In this series, the act of suicide is portrayed as a hateful vengeful act designed to ruin the lives of those that tried to care for Hannah.
I admit I cried when I saw the impact that Hannah’s behaviour had on her friend Clay. His actual terror that he killed her. She actually accused him of such. He was so consumed by guilt that we watch him standing on the edge of a cliff, thankfully not jumping. He genuinely doesn’t understand what he did wrong – because he didn’t do anything wrong. And as he listened to more of the tapes you can see his pain and at times total terror consume him, resulting in outbursts, but unable to talk to anybody. Most people who hear about a friend or loved one, or even an acquaintance who commits suicide feel they could have done more or helped prevent it. To be treated the way Clay was would result in life long agony, and was in some ways worse to watch than Hannah’s struggles. The show plays on the desperate wish of those left behind that they could ‘just have that last conversation then maybe things would have been different’.
6. Too many people kept too many secrets.
This goes against the current campaigns about seeking help if someone is struggling, or if people are concerned about others. After all, the main characters in the series were adolescents or young adults. They were also children to adults, some of whom came across as being available for their children, including Hannah’s. It is interesting that Hannah’s parents were scripted to be pharmacists, health care professionals that would know something about mental illness. By not disclosing the audio tapes, and believing in the ‘chain mail’ blackmail, further tragedies may have been prevented. Close friends may have avoided hearing the distressing material on the tapes. Respecting the wishes of Hannah for fear of being exposed led to untold distress. The opposite should have occurred. The most distressing character was Tony, who seemed to be gatekeeper of the tapes, and held off from telling Clay that Hannah in fact didn’t hold him accountable (or did she?). This was in the context of the backstory of the well meaning teacher who started a communications channel for students which came across as trite and not respected by the students.
7. The role of the school counsellor.
Mr Porter had one impossible task. He was trying to hold together a bunch of teenagers who knew way too much, didn’t disclose the context of their distress, and seemed to have no supervision or support himself. He tried his best with Hannah, after all, she stormed out of her session with him when he did come across as being available. Blaming him for not caring enough, or choosing to end her life because of this was distressing to watch as a psychiatrist. Health care professionals, as a rule, care, and would react to the news of a patient or student’s suicide with the same feelings of helplessness and doubt as the classmates did. At the time Hannah presented to him, she was behaving in a very erratic and impulsive manner- not in a place to listen or receive help. She believed everybody was against her, and in fact, knowingly or not, manipulated the session with Mr Porter to enact that feeling of abandonment, hence her justification for storming out. Why did she not approach Mr Porter sooner? Mr Porter was unable to perform a risk assessment. His rooms were unprofessional and lacked confidentiality – everybody could see who was talking to the school counsellor. It was unfair to blame him or his behaviours or lack of, as the whole system of care in the school had deficiencies.
8. Nobody had the parent’s feelings in mind.
How troubling to watch Hannah’s parents move through days after their daughter’s suicide, not knowing why. Blaming themselves for not noticing if there were signs. Finding her. Through these days, acquaintances of Hannah knew more about her than they did. Withholding the information from the parents was cruel and selfish.
9. The show sends clear messages that suicide is an option if bullied or treated poorly by peers.
Regardless of the trauma, the event or the situation there is never any justification to choose suicide as an option. The series depicts many well meaning parents and teachers that could have been approached to talk to. The depiction in the series is dangerous given the rise in cyber bullying in society, and feeds into the shame victims may feel after being the victim of an assault – that they don’t deserve to live.
10. The sequel.
I watched the sequel to “13 Reasons Why” that was made after the backlash to the show. I watched the producers, creators, directors and actors reiterate what I have written in this blog.
I can’t ignore the irony – if the show was about why not to choose suicide, why was it a show about the opposite?
“13 Reasons Why” will remain a lost opportunity to guide adolescents and parents about the dangers of having suicidal thoughts. It also failed to demonstrate how to seek the help everybody deserves to move on and lead the lives they should lead, with peace and resolution if also victims of crime and abuse.
Dr Helen Schultz is a consultant psychiatrist and author. She works with adolescents and adults in private practice in Richmond, Victoria, Australia. She believes that suicide is never an option.