Netflix Series ’13 Reasons Why’ Sparks Debate About Depiction of Teen Suicide

By Mark Walsh — April 25, 2017 7 min read
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“13 Reasons Why,” the Netflix drama about a high school girl’s suicide, has become a popular binge-watch among teenagers while causing concerns among some parents and educators.

The producers of the 13-part series based on a popular young adult novel of the same name maintain that the TV show is intended as an honest portrayal of the pain and finality of suicide, as well as such contributing factors as cyberbullying, stalking, “slut shaming,” and rape.

“We wanted to do it in a way where it was honest,” Selena Gomez, the pop singer who is a co-producer, says in a video postscript to the show. “And we wanted to make something that can hopefully help people, because suicide should never, ever be an option.”

The show’s detractors worry that young people are watching it without filtering or guidance from adults, and that it presents a sensationalized version of suicide.

“We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series,” says a statement about “13 Reasons Why” issued by the National Association of School Psychologists, in Bethesda, Md. “Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.”

The Netflix series, which debuted March 31, is based on the 2007 young adult novel of the same name by Jay Asher. The story is told by high school sophomore Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), whose voice we hear from a set of audiocassette tapes she recorded before killing herself.

A box containing the tapes arrives on the porch of her classmate Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who besides sharing classes with Hannah worked with her at a movie theater. He has a love interest in Hannah.

After figuring out a way to play this ancient technology of the cassette tape, Clay learns that Hannah has recorded a lengthy, oral suicide note that identifies the 13 people at Liberty High School who she believe are responsible for putting her in this position.

They include Justin (Brandon Flynn), a jock who spreads a salacious rumor about Hannah that starts her troubles; Tyler (Devin Druid), the student yearbook photographer who stalks Hannah (among others) with his camera; and Courtney (Michele Selene Ang), a closeted lesbian who lies about a brief kiss with Hannah. Others include several more jocks in a tight-knit circle, outcasts, and one adult.

Hannah’s tagline for each tape is “Justin [or whoever is the subect], welcome to your tape.” (The line has become a meme among young fans of the show.) Clay is reminded repeatedly that his tape is coming, and the viewer is given a long time to anticipate what this seemingly well-intentioned but confused and introspective young man could have done to contribute to Hannah’s suicidal intentions.

The tapes are an entry point to flashbacks that tell Hannah’s story. But those flashbacks are interspersed with segments of the story that occur present day. (The series provides a way to distinguish between the two tracks by having Clay crash on his bike early on in the contemporary story, leaving a large gash on his forehead. This is helpful, but as the story advances over several months, I was beginning to worry why Clay’s wound did not appear to be healing much. The writers evidently realized the same thing, because in a moment that is lighter than it probably sounds, Clay is rock climbing and gets hit by a falling rock in exactly the same place on his forehead.)

There are other light moments like that, and in my view the series is quite realistic in capturing high school life in the Facebook and Instagram era.

Clay soon learns that many of his classmates have already received the tapes, listened to them, and passed them on as instructed by Hannah.

Hannah’s parents, Olivia and Andy Baker (Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James) are largely clueless about why their daughter would commit suicide. One subplot involves their lawsuit seeking to hold the school district liable for Hannah’s death.

The suit is filed even before the Bakers have a few bare hints that their daughter was a victim of regular bullying and cyberbullying and that the school may not have done all it could to prevent such activity.

I’m not a lawyer, but from my perspective as someone who has written about education law for many years, I think their lawsuit is on thin ice in terms of having enough evidence to hold the district or school officials liable for the private conduct of a student who committed suicide.

Nevertheless, parents in such situations do tend to sue the school system. The Bakers’ suit provides some dramatic tension between the parents, the school, and some of the students. As it happens, Clay’s mother (Amy Hargreaves) is a lawyer defending the school district against the suit. (Which she continues to do even after Clay is subpoenaed for a deposition, which would seem to raise a conflict of interest.)

The young viewers who are binge-watching the series and tweeting about it (in reportedly record numbers) probably aren’t all that interested in such legal complexities.

Meanwhile, critics of the show have mainly focused on three particularly violent and troubling scenes—two rapes and the explicit depiction of Hannah’s suicide, with a razor blade in her bathtub.

The first rape involves a jock forcing himself on a girl during a house party, with Hannah stuck hiding in the room and witnessing the assault. The other involves the rape of Hannah in a hot tub at another house party by the same jock. Vox analyzes the rape scenes in some depth.

The suicide scene is, of course, disturbing to watch. Given the tone of the series, and everything leading up to that scene, it was as graphic as I expected.

“We had a number of people ask us along the way why we had Hannah kill herself in the way she did, [and] why we showed it,” Bryan Yorkey, the executive producer of “13 Reasons Why,” says in the documentary postscript. “We wanted it to be painful to watch. Because we wanted it to be very clear there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.”

(For educators or anyone else who wants to get a sense of the show and can’t immediately commit to viewing the 13 episodes, which are about an hour each, I recommend watching the 28-minute documentary, which includes interviews with cast and crew members as well as some mental health experts. It also shows some scenes from the series. A five-minute version is here:)

The school psychologists’ group, in its statement, does not condemn the show, but it does have some strong words of caution.

“While many youth are resilient and capable of differentiating between a TV drama and real life, engaging in thoughtful conversations with them about the show is vital,” the statement says. “What the series does accurately convey is that there is no single cause of suicide. Indeed, there are likely as many different pathways to suicide as there are suicide deaths.”

“However, the series does not emphasize that common among most suicide deaths is the presence of treatable mental illnesses,” the statement continues. “Suicide is not the simple consequence of stressors or coping challenges, but rather, it is most typically a combined result of treatable mental illnesses and overwhelming or intolerable stressors.”

Other voices have been more critical.

“Hannah was bullied, assaulted and ignored while she was alive, but her death and the tapes she left behind changed that,” 18-year-old writer and high school student Jaclyn Grimm wrote in an op-ed in USA Today. “She gained power through suicide, and that’s a dangerous message.”

And some suicide-prevention groups have expressed concerns that the graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide could lead to copycat acts by troubled young people. One group, SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), issued a series of talking points about the show, including one that says, “Hannah’s tapes blame others for her suicide. Suicide is never the fault of survivors of suicide loss.”

Nic Sheff, a writer on “13 Reasons Why” who had once tried to take his own life, wrote in Vanity Fair that he was surprised by suicide-prevention advocates and others who objected to the decision to depict Hannah’s suicide.

“In other words, they thought it would be better to leave her character’s death to the imagination,” Shef writes. “From the very beginning, I agreed that we should depict the suicide with as much detail and accuracy as possible. ... We need to keep talking, keep sharing, and keep showing the realities of what teens in our society are dealing with every day. To do anything else would be not only irresponsible, but dangerous.”

Sheff refers to Hannah’s story as “Season 1" of the TV show. As those who have finished the series know (slight spoiler alert), it ends with an apparent suicide attempt by one of the other students. But the outcome of that development is left unresolved, adding to speculation about a second season.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.