My Twitter and Facebook timelines have been covered in posts about 13 Reasons Why this week. I read the book when I was 15 and was conflicted. On the one hand, I was happy that the issue of suicide in teenagers was discussed, but on the other, it does a god-awful job of explaining it. In fact, teenage me was so disappointed that I wrote my own novel about teen suicide and depression because 13 Reasons Why is a terrible representation of mental health.
Content Warning: Suicide, mental illness, and sexual assault will be discussed in this post. I’ll try to be delicate, but if you’re not feeling up to it, click away now.
Bear in mind that I’m mostly basing this blog post on the book. I haven’t watched the show in full, but I’ve seen bits and pieces and picked up a lot of other’s onions online, but brace yourself for spoilers. I’m also not a mental health professional. These are my opinions as someone with lived experience. Please seek help from a professional if you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health.
Why 13 Reasons Is A Terrible Representation Of Mental Health
One of the main points of the book is that your behaviour impacts other people, and you may not know just how severe that will be. I have no problem with that messaging; people should be aware that they don’t know what someone is going through and strive to be more considerate.
However, Hannah blames everyone for her problems. The fact that she made tapes to shame people in school, but didn’t leave her parents, who weren’t abusive by any means, so much as a note, just doesn’t sit right with me either.
Some of the people who got the tapes didn’t even do anything wrong. Hannah made seeing someone else get raped all about her, which is bad enough, but also shows how hypocritical she is because she has a vendetta against other people for not protecting her from far less.
It didn’t portray Hannah as depressed or as a bullying victim, which are two major causes of teen suicide.
As for the show, the fact that there was no trigger warning before Hannah’s suicide attempt is reckless. Not only was showing it without appropriate warnings bad enough, but they made it more graphic than it actually is in the book. It felt like it was for shock factor when that kind of content could be damaging to vulnerable people watching.
It’s fairly well documented that you should not detail the methods or release suicide notes because it can increase the risk of copycat suicides. The whole thing is basically a glorified suicide note. I know there are bound to be changes from book to screen, but this was something they really didn’t need to mess with.
The Reality For Mentally Ill Teenagers
When I was 15, I heard someone on TV say that teenagers that have taken their lives don’t know what they’re doing because their brains aren’t developed properly yet. I can’t argue with the fact that you’re not the most mature during the teenage years, but you’re not incompetent either. There’s a very big difference between being hormonal and being suicidal. Even if some teenagers are more immature, and throw words like depression and suicide around loosely, we shouldn’t then disregard all of them.
There’s a belief that young people are just looking for attention or being dramatic when they try to seek help for emotional issues. It’s all “young people are so whiney” until someone, unfortunately, does die by suicide, and the discourse changes to “they were so beautiful. The poor thing.” Most suicides are due to mental illness, but 13 Reasons Why isn’t the most accurate representation of it. In the show, why Hannah ends her life is much clearer, but in the book, she jumps between fairly big incidents and guilting people for things that are just petty.
Since that attitude used to be so pervasive, I used to wonder if I would look back as an adult and think it wasn’t that bad; I was just immature. Now that I’ve grown up, I’m horrified not only that I felt that low but also because that narrative made me doubt myself so much that I was scared to ask for help. 13 Reasons could have helped change that.
Teenagers are not immune to mental illness. The younger someone is saying they think they’re depressed, the more concerned we should be. The actual topic of mental illness left a lot to be desired in the book and show.
Mental illness does not discriminate. No matter who you are, mental illness can affect anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re young and in better circumstances than someone else. Some mental illnesses are hereditary. Everything in your life could be perfect, and you can still be depressed – that’s why it’s depression and not just sadness.
Destroying Hope For The Vulnerable
The part in the book where Hannah puts her last amount of hope into her guidance counsellor was a great example of young people being told to “get over it,” but I don’t think it was appropriate to include. After that, Hannah solidifies the idea of taking her life, believing there is no help. It’s so bleak that I worry anyone who is vulnerable reading it will also feel that there is no point trying to reach out to others.
Hannah was clearly a danger to herself in this scene. A real (competent) teacher would – or should – not have left her to leave that room until they were 100% sure she wasn’t going to hurt herself. Schools, therapists, etc, have rules in place for these kinds of things. They also would have had to tell someone if they thought she was a danger to herself.
In real life, that scene would have unfolded very differently. And if, God forbid, something like that does play out in real life, whoever is behind it is grossly incompetent. Do not let 13 Reasons make you think that there is no point in asking for help; this is not the norm.
13 Reasons Why Is Wasted Potential
Ultimately, I feel like 13 Reasons Why had a lot of potential. If done differently, it could have resonated with a lot of young people. It could have helped people understand that young people’s feelings are just as valid as everyone else’s. I think Jay Asher and Selena Gomez had good intentions; it just came out wrong. I can’t help but wonder if someone behind the scenes cared more about ratings, publicity, and shock factor than responsible storytelling.
They were reportedly told not to show the suicide by mental health professionals. I can’t help but feel they included it for the attention it would get. It took them two long years to finally edit it out. Two years is too late.
In the end, I think it just perpetuates the stigma. The average person has no additional understanding of mental illness or bullying after it. They might actually have just come to the conclusion that teenagers are incompetent, petty, and whiny, which isn’t true. The mental health of young people and teenagers is a very serious real thing. We can’t keep dismissing them.
Final Thoughts & Recommendations
13 Reasons Why is a terrible representation of mental health. Heathers is satire and it did a better job. Cyberbully didn’t go into much depth on depression either, but I’d still recommend it more. It’s less triggering, but also paints a better picture of bullying driving young people to suicide.
One of the big reasons why 13 Reasons Why is a poor representation of mental health is because the show reportedly went against what mental health professionals advised, and there was real life consequences to that. I think if they truly cared about this topic and wanted to help people, then they would have done exactly what mental health professionals said to do.
What did you think of 13 Reasons Why? Did you read the book, see the show, or both? Do you think 13 Reasons Why is a poor representation of mental health, or do you disagree with me?