When it was released on Netflix in spring of 2017, 13 Reasons Why, a show that follows a suicidal teenager and the fallout from her decision to take her own life, quickly became one of the most talked-about—and controversial—shows of the year. While some have argued that the show, which many critics have found compelling and well-acted, provides a much-needed forum to depict and discuss issues teenagers face, like bullying and sexual assault, the list of potential negatives is far longer. With Season 2 coming out in about two weeks, below are 10 reasons why 13 Reasons Why is bad for society.
Note: This post contains show spoilers, difficult content, and references to suicide. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
10. The show’s structure suggests that suicide isn’t final
In 13 Reasons Why, the main character, Hannah, plays a major role in every episode, even though she is dead. As Hannah notes in one of her ubiquitous voiceovers, “I’m going to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended.” Throughout the series, Hannah is ever-present, both through her voice on the tapes and through her presence in flashbacks. Even though Hannah is dead, she’s still playing a major role in the story, with her voice literally driving the action that takes place in the series’ 13 episodes.
One suicide attempt survivor and mental health advocate explains the problem with this approach, saying, “Having [Hannah] appear over and over makes the impact of the fact that she is dead get lost. When you die by suicide there is no coming back. You don’t get to hear the apologies and the things people wish they said when you were alive. You’re gone.” Viewers of 13 Reasons Why may not grasp the finality of suicide, because the arc of the plotline suggests that Hannah gets to continue to tell, and even participate in, her own story after her death. According to the show’s writer, Brian Yorkey, Hannah will even appear in the second season of the show, allowing her to live on in the minds of the show’s viewers, despite the fact that her life actually ended the moment she killed herself.
9. The adults on the show are depicted as oblivious and/or unhelpful
The adults on 13 Reasons Why are generally unaware of the challenges facing the teen characters on the show, and when they do have important opportunities to help, they don’t. While Hannah’s parents are distracted over their own financial situation, we don’t get any indication that they wouldn’t have supported her if she shared her problems with them. However, this is a potential avenue for help that the show doesn’t even treat as a possibility.
When Hannah finally does try to reach out for help, both to a teacher and the school counselor, she doesn’t get any. Mrs. Bradley, the Peer Communications teacher, does list some resources for dealing with suicidal thoughts after receiving an anonymous note (from Hannah), but Hannah’s voiceover quickly interrupts (meaning that neither Hannah nor the audience get the message). Mrs. Bradley apparently feels that a one-time mention of avenues for help is sufficient and doesn’t take any follow-up action to try to reach out to her suicidal student. Worse still, when Hannah visits her school guidance counselor, Mr. Porter, he fails to recognize that she is suicidal, despite her saying that she feels “lost and sort of empty” and wants “everything to stop—people, life.” When she confides that she was the victim of sexual assault, Mr. Porter describes this as a regrettable “decision” and says that if she doesn’t want to reveal the name of her attacker, she should “move on.” As she leaves the guidance counselor’s office, Mr. Porter picks up the ringing phone, implying that he has already moved on from the discussion.
School counselors have reacted with anger to this depiction of their profession. The National Association for Suicide Prevention advised educators to reinforce with students that school mental health professionals are available to help and that Mr. Porter’s behavior on the show “is understood by virtually all school-employed mental health professionals as inappropriate.” One guidance professional called the depiction of Mr. Porter’s actions “unethical, unrealistic and even legally dubious,” while another noted that this unrealistic portrayal gave teenagers the false message that seeking help from mental health professionals would prove to be a “dead end for someone who’s struggling.”
8. It equates transgressions that aren’t equally bad
It’s there in the title of the show—13 Reasons Why—but some of those 13 reasons are a lot worse than others. The crimes each character commits against Hannah vary wildly, but each character and their transgression are allotted equal time on the tapes. Bryce, for example, commits a legitimately heinous crime—brutally raping Hannah. Contrast that to some of the other offenses that warranted tapes from Hannah—Ryan publishing Hannah’s poem (without her name attached) against her wishes or Zach secretly emptying her compliment jar in class and supposedly crumpling up a heartfelt note from Hannah (it turns out he never actually did the latter). Hannah even admits that Clay doesn’t actually even deserve to be on the list, but saddles him with guilt over her death anyway.
While these are all presented as an accumulation of betrayals that lead Hannah to take her own life, the show doesn’t do enough to emphasize that the betrayals Hannah experiences are in no way equivalent to one another. It also suggests that there is no real opportunity for Hannah to get relief from any of her traumas and, while that’s likely true of Hannah’s embarrassment over the poem publication, there are certainly numerous avenues through which rape victims can pursue justice.
7. It provides an inadequate examination of mental illness and makes suicide seem rational
Hannah certainly faces a confluence of terrible life events in the course of the show. However, while external stressors such as bullying, violence, and loss can certainly contribute to suicide, they are rarely the only factors that make a person suicidal. More than 90% of people who die by suicide have risk factors of depression and/or other mental disorders and/or substance abuse disorders. Extreme circumstances can serve as a suicide trigger for someone with one of these underlying conditions, but it is rare that circumstances alone are enough to cause an otherwise healthy person to pursue suicide.
While the show depicts Hannah suffering from some stereotypical symptoms of depression (withdrawal, loss of interest in activities, drop in grades), the arc of the narrative suggests that Hannah’s problems (and by extension, her depression) are driven just by the negative events that she experiences, and are not in any way linked to her underlying brain chemistry. This lack of discussion of mental illness on the show suggests that Hannah is pursuing a rational course of action in choosing to end her life, rather than highlighting the likelihood that other risk factors existed even before Hannah faced a series of traumatic events in her life. By not incorporating the idea of other risk factors, viewers may see Hannah’s suicide as inevitable, rather than appreciating the high probability that with effective treatment for underlying mental issues, Hannah would likely have had the resilience to cope with the terrible things she experiences in the course of Season 1.
6. The show suggests that suicidal individuals can be saved by kindness alone
While even Hannah doesn’t blame her friend Clay for her suicide, Clay himself does, saying, “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her.” Even assurances from a trusted adult that love wouldn’t have saved Hannah don’t dissuade Clay (or the audience) from believing it might have. Clay tells the guidance counselor, “It has to get better, the way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.” This idea that kindness is the answer to suicide prevention is further reinforced when, at the end of Season 1, Clay reaches out to Skye, another troubled classmate, and the two are shown hanging out.
While it’s hard to argue with a message that promotes kindness (especially to teenage viewers), there is danger in suggesting that it is a viable method for preventing suicides. This idea is not only incorrect, it is cruel to the loved ones of someone who has committed suicide, because it suggests that a kind word or gesture would have been enough to prevent the act. Indeed, an astute viewer will notice that a librarian does offer kind words to Hannah shortly before she kills herself, indirectly refuting this idea, though it is underscored in other ways throughout the series. Because mental illness is a factor in most suicides, kindness isn’t enough. If a teen suspects a friend is contemplating suicide, the most effective way of addressing it isn’t just by being kind, but rather by offering support while providing encouragement and avenues to seek professional help. The show provides no “how to” guide for teens to support suicidal friends, other than simple kindness, an approach which is unlikely to address the source of suicidal ideation and therefore, not the most effective way to prevent suicide.
5. The show promotes the idea that no one can be trusted
Throughout the course of 13 Reasons Why, everyone close to Hannah Baker betrays her. Her parents are too preoccupied with their own challenges to notice her unhappiness, her friends and classmates (even those who seem decent initially) turn on her in ways large and small, her crush sends an explicit photo of her to his friends, her teachers and counselor dismiss her, and she’s left to cope with the aftermath of her sexual assault with no functional support system.
The show largely reflects Hannah’s view that there is no good in the world, a view that supports Hannah’s hopeless spiral. Even when there are flickers of good, like the librarian who invites Hannah to return to the poetry group where she’s been missed, they aren’t enough to offset the fact that everyone close to Hannah lets her down. Unfortunately, 13 Reasons Why doesn’t do enough to distinguish between Hannah’s depressed worldview and the reality that there were people who cared about her and would have helped if she shared her struggle. Instead, Hannah signs off her final tape by saying, “Some of you cared, none of you cared enough.” Viewers may be left with the incorrect impression that the world is a dark place, full of terrible people, and vulnerable viewers may be left with the dangerous conclusion that no one around them is willing to help, and that even those who appear decent will ultimately betray them.
4. Hannah’s suicide results in justice
Sure, Hannah’s suicide devastates her family and friends, but 13 Reasons Why also highlights a fair number of positive outcomes that result from it. Hannah’s parents sue the school, exposing its pervasive culture of bullying. Clay pushes Bryce to confess to raping Hannah on tape, suggesting Bryce will have to answer for his crimes. Sheri, whose failure to report a stop sign she knocked over resulted in a tragic death, is moved by Hannah’s tapes to confess her role in the accident to the police. Tyler, who shared a compromising photo of Hannah with classmates, faces his own comeuppance when Clay shares a naked photo of him with his fellow students, with Clay saying that he’s “Making [his]own justice.”
By showcasing the positive results of Hannah’s suicide, the show inaccurately suggests that her suicide was the only way to get justice, when, in fact, there were likely numerous other ways to make the wrongdoers account for their actions that didn’t require Hannah’s suicide.
3. The show blames others for Hannah’s suicide
The show’s very title suggests that other people (12 other people to be specific) are the cause of Hannah’s suicide. In fact, Hannah kills herself for just one reason: because she chooses to. While many of the people on the list did terrible things to Hannah (some more terrible than others and a couple who, arguably, did nothing wrong), none of those people ultimately ends Hannah’s life. Hannah does.
The show repeatedly reinforces the idea that others are to blame for Hannah’s death not only through its title, but also through the assessments of those who listen to the tapes Hannah left behind. One character (Alex), accepts this blame, arguing to another, “You want to think whatever you did couldn’t be why Hannah killed herself. But the truth is, I did, I killed Hannah Baker! And Justin killed Hannah Baker. And Jessica. And you. We all killed Hannah Baker. “
However, the idea that everyone who hurt (or failed to help) Hannah is responsible for her suicide, ignores the role of Hannah (and her underlying mental health) in her own death. In the vast majority of suicides, while the actions of others can be contributing stressors, the person committing suicide had an underlying mental disorder (such as depression) and/or a substance abuse disorder. The “reason why” is almost always that they did not get treatment for their suicidal thinking (and the underlying mental conditions for it) when they needed it. By not exploring this most common actual risk factor for suicide, the show left the false impression that the actions of others are the primary driver of suicides, and therefore, largely out of the suicidal person’s own control and beyond help through treatment.
2. The show suggests that suicide is an effective vehicle for revenge and a way to have control
The tapes Hannah leaves behind (and her threat to have a friend expose those who are featured on the tapes if they don’t cooperate) literally force those who Hannah believes have wronged her to listen to her perspective and obey her instructions. As one critic complains, “By letting Hannah live on through the tapes, the show not only undermines the finality of her suicide, it frames suicide as an effective act of vengeance.” In the series, Hannah’s suicide amplified her power (and literally, her voice) and enabled her to exact revenge on those who wronged her. Her classmates are sorry when she’s gone. And through flashback sequences, and the tapes, it almost seems as though she is witnessing the impact of her suicide on those around her.
In real life of course, the person who committed suicide is in no way around to witness the impact of their death, which is mainly likely to result in pain for loved ones rather than the fulfillment of a revenge fantasy. Unfortunately, while suicide isn’t an effective way to get power or revenge, some research shows a desire for control or revenge can be a motivating factor for some suicidal adolescents. For those vulnerable teens, 13 Reasons Why falsely suggests that suicide can be a path to achieving those ends.
1. The show may spark copycat behavior
When 13 Reasons Why debuted, suicide-prevention experts criticized the show’s graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide, highlighting the risk of a “contagion effect,” whereby vivid imagery or intense media coverage of suicides can spark additional “copycat” suicides. Given the show’s popularity (it was the year’s most-tweeted about show), its content reached a large audience, many of whom were teenagers. A study found that Google searches around suicide increased significantly after the show’s release. An editorial published in the Journal of American Medicine related to this study further warned that the ability to binge-watch the series may amplify its negative impact on teens, noting, “This immersion into the story and images may have a particularly strong effect on adolescents, whose brains are still developing the ability to inhibit certain emotions, desires, and actions.” Indeed, the show itself alludes to the contagion effect, when its final episode of the first season reveals a classmate of Hannah’s has also attempted suicide.
Unfortunately, the show’s content may have contributed to the real-world suicides of three young adults. A 23-year-old man in Peru committed suicide, leaving behind tapes for those he felt made his life unbearable. While there was no explicit reference to 13 Reasons Why, the presence of the recordings suggests the show may have influenced his behavior. Families of two California teens who committed suicide also cite the show, and its depiction of suicide as the only way to escape challenges like cyberbullying and emotional pain, as a trigger for those suicides.