When I was 15 my life changed dramatically when a close childhood friend took his father’s shotgun, pointed it at himself, and pulled the trigger. In an instant, he was gone. The night it happened he had asked me to go to a movie with him. My parents wouldn’t let me date yet and I turned him down. The guilt of that rejection and his subsequent actions have haunted me my entire life.
The truth was his suicide attempt had nothing to do with me. He had learned that he had a brain tumor again and couldn’t stand the thought of going through another round of cancer treatments. Even knowing his reasons, I have never been able to shake the feeling that if I had said yes to the date, maybe he would still be alive.
Several years after my friend’s death, I survived my own suicide attempt. I was struggling with depression and mental health issues and felt hopeless. I eventually realized that I was lucky I survived and I became a big supporter of suicide prevention programs and an advocate for mental health issues.
When I was told about the new Netflix show 13 Reasons Why I immediately binge watched it with optimism. Everyone was singing its praises and telling me that I should watch it with my 13-year-old son. By the end of the last episode I was screaming at the TV in outrage and I was thankful that I had chosen to watch the show on my own first.
There are many things that 13 Reasons Why gets right. It shows viewers that nasty rumors, bullying, and sexual assault can have severe repercussions. It encourages its viewers to be kind to other people. The problem with the show is that its portrayal of suicide is drastically wrong.
The premise of the show, for anyone who hasn’t watched it yet, is that a young high school student named Hannah Baker commits suicide. She leaves behind several tapes that blame thirteen different individuals for her death. The story is of revenge, like Kill Bill except her weapon of choice is taking her own life instead of killing the people who wronged her with a fancy sword. In a sick twisted way, Hannah becomes the heroine of this story. This sends a dangerous message to teenagers who are already fantasizing about killing themselves.
The show romanticizes the idea of suicide. It also puts the blame for Hannah’s suicide squarely on the shoulders of everyone but Hannah. The entire show focuses on the horrible things that people did to Hannah and it never once dives into a discussion of Hannah’s mental health or the way she is internalizing the things that are happening to her. The show never gets deep enough to really show its viewers the real underlying reasons behind Hannah’s suicide.
The truth is that more than 90% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness. 13 Reasons Why misleads its viewers into believing that the people in Hannah’s life are responsible for her death. While many of the people in her life treated her badly and deserved to be held accountable for their actions, not a single one of them was to blame for Hannah’s suicide. She made that abnormal drastic decision on her own.
The moral of the story also misses its mark. 13 Reasons Why wants its viewers to believe that you can stop someone from committing suicide by being kind to them. The problem is kindness alone won’t help someone who is truly suffering from depression.
A lot of people suffering from depression are surrounded by friends and family who love them and treat them with kindness every day. Some of these people still ultimately take their own lives. People with severe depression need help from a trained mental health professional, no amount of kindness can fix true mental illness.
For all of these reasons, I have decided not to have my 13-year-old son watch 13 Reasons Why. I don’t want him to get the wrong idea about suicide. I want him to know that there is no glory in killing yourself. I want to make sure he understands that there is no reason good enough to take your own life.
I want him to understand that if someone close to him commits suicide that it isn’t his fault. I know firsthand that survivors guilt tears you up inside. I want him to know that kindness and love alone are not enough to save a life. Instead, I will teach him the warning signs and where to get help from people who are educated in helping someone who is having suicidal thoughts.
Most importantly I want him to know that no matter how he feels or what happens to him he can come to me. In 13 Reasons Why none of the teenagers tell a single adult about anything that is going on. Most of the situations that happened to Hannah and other characters could have been handled better if at least one of them would have involved their parents in what was going on. I don’t want my son to think that he has to handle these adult situations on his own.
Luckily, I have a boy that is more interested in watching basketball or weird cartoons than Netflix teen dramas, so he probably will never have any desire to watch the show. If you do have teenagers that really want to watch it I suggest that you watch it with them and take the time to really talk to them about suicide, mental illness, survivors guilt, where to get help, and your role in their life.