13 Reasons Why: The Issue of Mental Illness in Mass Media

Amanda Swank, Author

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Last year the Netflix Original series 13 Reasons Why was highly criticized for its portrayal of suicide and depression. The main character, Hannah Baker, commits suicide after recording 13 cassette tapes blaming 13 people for her death. The tapes were then sent around to each individual, who would send them to the next person in the list. The graphic depictions of suicide, as well as rape, are two of the many reasons viewers may find the show disturbing.

(Spoiler Alert for Seasons One and Two)

 

This year, Netflix has released a second season of the series, which is just as heavy as the first, if not more. But how do popular TV shows like this one contribute to the stigma of mental illness and those suffering from it? One of the main issues with this show is the romanticism of suicide and depression. Even though this was not the intention of the producers, the sense of power and control Hannah has over her classmates, despite being dead, is not a good message to send to bullied teens.

This “revenge” on Hannah’s classmates also reinforces the idea that suicide is an option, and a good way to get back at those who have done them wrong. A strong message that screams “there is no hope for me” is also dangerous, as it makes it seem like suicide really was the only way Hannah could go, when it wasn’t.

13 Reasons Why also plays a role in a phenomenon known as suicide contagion. Suicide contagion is the exposure to suicide or suicidal behavior either in real life or through media reports, which results in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. Exposing young people and teens to a show this graphic, has already lead to several cases of teens committing suicide after watching the show.

In season 2, Hannah makes another appearance as a ghost that haunts Clay and gives him advice. This inspires the harmful idea that those who commit suicide could watch family and friends from beyond the grave, and seeing how others respond to their death. In reality, no know knows what happens after death, but romanticizing it is a harmful message to send to viewers.

Lastly, another issue with this show is the false depiction of depression. Psychologists have determined that those who commit suicide are depressed. However, Hannah showcases almost none of the symptoms commonly found in those who are depressed. A common misconception about suicide is that it is caused entirely by external factors, like major life events. But most who suffer from suicidal thoughts are mentally ill, and it is dangerous to take that away from the conversation, as it is a major component of suicide.

So why do we need a second season?