'13 Reasons Why' may have initiated the discussion on teen suicide, but please don't look to it for solutions

The death of a 17-year-old unfolds a high school drama and we sense how suicide has been glorified in the addictive hit show bound to return on May 18 with their second season

                            '13 Reasons Why' may have initiated the discussion on teen suicide, but please don't look to it for solutions
Dylan Minnette (Source: Getty Images)

With the trending of Netflix's '13 Reason Why' and the controversy revolving around it, many teenagers and adults took the series as a peg to talk about suicide.

The topic, once considered blasphemous, became a mystery drama hit series last year and is bound to make a return with Season 2 on 18 May 2018.

With an opening warning message that '13 Reasons Why' could pose risks for viewers, especially for those already struggling with mental health issues, the series starts with the suicide of a teenage high school girl, Hannah Baker. This is one of the many reasons why the show stands distinct from its predecessors; while many shows end with suicide, this begins with it.

The conversation about suicide was instantly initiated and it is necessary for a country like United States where suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, those between ages 10 and 24, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the depiction of suicide, perhaps the glamorizing of the fact to the extent of justifying it raised concerns among parents and experts. Canada has banned all talk of the show in some schools, while New Zealand won’t allow anyone under 18 to watch the show without adult supervision. In the U.S., the show is rated TV-MA which means it is unsuitable for children under 17 years of age.

Besides the controversial plot of Hannah Baker leaving behind 13 cassettes blaming 13 individuals for her death, the show graphically portrays the act, the piling up of depression, the unconcerned adults and explicit rape of the victim. When the show first aired in March last year, it was without any warning or disclaimers. But the more controversial it got, along with rising popularity, the discourse sparked debate even at home.

My cousin, who is a teenager and diagnosed with depression, prompted me to watch the show. And I did, only to be confused if the show was supposed to be positive or if the graphic depiction would do more harm than good. When my mother sneaked a peek to one or more scenes, she questioned what I was watching. It was not as hard to explain what depression is and how it leads to suicide but it was difficult to make her understand why Hannah Baker was doing what she was. 

Alexa Curtis, founder of Media Impact and Navigation for Teens, a program that raises awareness about online bullying, wrote an opinion piece on Rolling Stones where she stated that she could have been the real-life Hannah Baker since she was bullied in high school. "Had I been watching that as the vulnerable, fragile kid that I was when I was 13 or 14, I might have watched that and thought, 'Oh, that's the easy way out. This is going to get me the attention that I need. This is what I have to do," she wrote. 

Health experts agree as well that show could pose more risks to teens having suicidal thoughts. Hence, Netflix too put up the prominent disclaimer, which will also be a part of its second season. To take further precaution, the cast members including Dylan Minnette (Clay Jensen), Katherine Langford (Hannah Baker), Justin Prentice (Bryce Walker) and Alisha Boe (Jessica Davis) will be reading a video message that will run before season two's each episode.

Each episode of season two will air this disclaimer instead of the title cards warning. The one minute video narrates; "13 Reasons Why is a fictional series that tackles tough, real-world issues, taking a look at sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide and more. By shedding a light on these difficult topics we hope our show can help viewers start a conversation. But if you struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you, or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult. If you ever feel you need someone to talk with, reach out to a parent, a friend, a school counselor or an adult you trust. Call a local helpline or go to 13reasonswhy.info because the minute that you start talking about it, it gets easier.” 

This move definitely comes after experts and individuals cited concerns about the disturbing scenes of harrowing rape and suicide. Hannah Baker first names Justin Foley, one of the popular boys she went on a night date to a park. He started a rumor at school that Hannah was a slut after they kissed once. This was only the beginning of what was to follow. Her classmates including her close friends Alex Standall, Jessica Davis and Tyler Down furthers the bullying by objectifying her, slapping her and stalking her which leads her to get sexually assaulted and raped by Bryce Walker, the popular senior boy who rapes Jessica Davis when drunk and unconscious.

There are more people on the tape including Zach Dempsey, who swooped to comfort her after Marcus Cooley tried to molest her. But Zach's good intention backfires when Hannah denies his advances. The last person on the audiotapes is Mr. Porter, a temporary school counselor who tells Hannah that if she was unwilling to press charges against "the boy" that raped her, then she should try to move on, even after Hannah expressed a desire to kill herself, he did not extend his help.

Throughout all the narration in the series, we follow the protagonist Clay Jensen, who Hannah adores and calls the "nicest person she has met," on the tapes. But he too failed to save her and we see his guilt. The suicide show suddenly becomes a dramatic number on guilt and violence in school.

It did not help soothe me and my cousin since we witness another suicide of Alex Standall, who shot himself on the head towards the end of the show. Even Hannah Baker's suicide, where she slits her wrist in the bathtub is very difficult to watch. In the 14th half an hour episode of 'Beyond the Reasons,' the directors and producers say the scenes are difficult to watch because it is meant to be difficult. 

Previously, one of the show’s writers, Nic Sheff, defended its depiction of suicide, writing that “it overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have not to show the death at all.”

But parents and mental health experts were assured that this would trigger suicide among the vulnerable. In June 2017, two 15-year-old friends killed themselves and both families blamed the show co-produced by pop star Selena Gomez. The parents of Bella Herndon and Priscilla Chiu said both were watching the series that "inspired" them to kill themselves. 

Bella's father John Herndon told local California channel KTVU; "There's no word that describes my contempt for the people that did this. You can't convince me that they were trying to attract people's attention to the issue of suicide by showing a little girl killing herself. There's nothing positive about that."

However, a licensed professional counselor who serves as an online faculty member at The Family Institute at Northwestern University told CNN that it is unlikely that one show alone could trigger someone to attempt suicide. But the show acknowledges the research that exposure to another person's suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide.

The influence of TV is not unknown in today's century where people imitate what they see on screen, especially the millennials. The very fact that suicide is glamorized in one of the hit TV shows that is returning with the second season isn't any less of a concern. With an average of 5,000 kids attempting suicide every day in America, the dialogue is necessary but so is the presentation.

The creators of '13 Reasons Why' have done an excellent part in rendering the act and parcel of suicide and the balls it takes to take the step. But, the therapy and the remedy is less focused on. The counselor hands a box of tissue to the depressed teen rather than attend or give suitable advice. The show gave us the talk but we still don't know how are we suppose to help those in distress or the steps we can take if we are depressed.

The second season may be as disturbing since the 14th audio tape has been added by Clay Jensen and Alex has killed himself. The suicide has been glamorized but of course, nobody is going to blame the show with "good intentions."