For most viewers of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, the message is clear: Be kind, it could save a life. But that isn’t what I watched.
Since its release on March 31, viewers have taken to Twitter and other social media platforms to proclaim their love for the show, stressing how important they think it is. I’ve seen people go so far as to suggest it become required viewing for middle and high school students, despite the graphic displays of assault and, ultimately, suicide.
I’ve dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts since middle school, about the younger age of 13 Reasons Why’s audience. I never imagined logistics: razor blades cutting delicate skin, the quick violence of a gunshot. What I saw in my mind was crying peers and thousands of flowers and people wishing they had reached out to me. I didn’t want pain; I wanted control. While watching the show, the bullying, assault and even the suicide itself didn’t stand out to me. All I could focus on was the power the main character had after her death.
That’s no spoiler — 13 Reasons Why opens with the aftermath of high school student Hannah Baker’s suicide. Clay Jensen, Hannah’s classmate and co-worker, receives 13 cassette tapes detailing the reasons Hannah killed herself. Hannah was bullied, assaulted and ignored while she was alive, but her death and the tapes she left behind changed that. She gained power through suicide, and that’s a dangerous message.
People argue the show is important because it discusses suicide in a straightforward way that other shows haven’t. But for a supposedly important discussion of teen suicide, mental illness isn’t explicitly mentioned in any of the 13 episodes. Hannah explains the reasons that caused her to commit suicide, but the show fails to acknowledge that 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from mental illness. While external circumstances such as bullying can contribute to suicide, the show misses the opportunity to discuss the underlying cause.
13 Reasons Why isn’t dangerous only for depressed and suicidal teens. Where the show romanticizes the aftermath of suicide, it also blames everyone in Hannah’s life.
While the characters mentioned in Hannah’s cassette tapes should certainly be held accountable for their actions, the show misleads the viewer into believing there is someone to blame for suicide. The premise perpetuates the idea that there is always liability when someone commits suicide. One character even states: “Well, we ALL killed Hannah Baker.”
Friends of those who commit suicide already go through a sort of survivor’s guilt, whether they have a reason to or not. In many cases, they are Clays — bystanders to bullying and depression. Clay isn’t explicitly blamed in Hannah’s tape. In her own words, “Your name doesn’t belong on this list. … You’re good and kind and decent and I didn’t deserve to be with someone like you.” But though she says Clay can’t be blamed, it’s clear the show is condemning him for never stepping in. He ends the show by admitting, “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her,” and while an adult reminds him love can’t save lives, the show ultimately agrees with Clay’s perspective.
Being kind isn’t a bad message, but in the context of the show it becomes complicated. The last episode ends with Clay reaching out to Skye, a student similar to Hannah in many ways. It implies that by being kind, he is able to save her in the way he didn’t save Hannah. Because the show doesn’t discuss mental illness, this scene suggests that saving someone from suicide is as easy as a friendly gesture. Clay doesn’t see suicidal warning signs and direct Skye to someone who actually can — an adult who could make sure she sees a mental health professional. Instead, he presumably saves her just by being nice; that’s not how suicide works.
There are no magic words or gestures that can make a suicidal person want to live. Teenagers should be aware of signs of depression and suicidal thoughts, but they shouldn’t think their kindness can “fix” anyone. That idea prevents depressed teens from getting actual help and places an enormous weight on the shoulders of the people left behind.
In 13 Reasons Why, I don’t see a daring and powerful teen drama. It’s just a tired attempt at discussing a difficult topic. It’s clear the creators see suicide only for its shock value, and I worry for the teens like me who will watch the show.
Jaclyn Grimm, 18, is a writer and high school student who lives in Orlando.