Making a series about a girl who killed herself was always going to be a risky one, but up until episode 13 it was actually going really well. It didn’t seem to be glamourising, but it still successfully showed the complicated, sometimes seemingly irrational to those unaffected, emotions and situations that affect those with mental health issues. I was obsessed with the show and was on the verge of forcing everyone to watch it.
Now I would actively discourage people from watching it.
In an essay I just wrote I had to examine the irresponsible ways journalists report mental health: things that harm, sensationalise, or stigmatise against the subjects of their stories. So when watching the thirteenth episode of this series all the ways you can irresponsibly report mental health were on my mind. While there was no stigmatising language that I was aware of, and while I personally don’t think it sensationalised the story, it still did a lot that I think is potentially harmful.
I’m upset because this kind of thing can affect real people, with real lives and real struggles, and something that was so clearly trying to help still seems to me to have got it so wrong. So here’s what I think they did that I’m not okay with (I would say spoiler alert, but I’d actually rather have been warned about this before I watched it so I’m not saying that):
Issue Number One:
My first, and probably main, issue is that they show in very graphic detail how Hannah kills herself. I’ve heard that they did this in order to put people off copycat behaviour, which is why it was so horrific to watch. Despite this, I was still completely shocked at this irresponsible portrayal. In researching for my essay, one thing I saw repeatedly was that we shouldn’t give tips on how to copy the behaviour, and that is exactly what they did.
The main reason that I have issues with this is that everyone who watched it now knows how to copy it. Even people who might be feeling fine now might be struggling in years to come and will now be able to remember exactly how to do what Hannah did. I realise that it’s really not too hard to find out how to do this, but why make this even easier for people who might not know where to start looking, or that might be too scared to look?
I understand that this isn’t what they were trying to do. But I still think it’s completely unacceptable. You should never show these things on TV. If someone can be harmed by art then art should 100% be compromised.
Issue Number Two:
My second issue is in the fact that there is no narrative explaining how someone can help themselves. When Hannah seeks out help she is ignored. And the moral is that we, the assumed watcher, should look out for those who might be struggling. But we, the assumed watcher, might also be struggling, and so what do we do? Just sit and wait for a knight in shining armour who may or may not be called Clay to come and help us?
Shows like this need to show how people can seek help. Yes, it is terrifying, but a positive portrayal of someone seeking and getting help could be what encourages someone to do so themselves. The only portrayal being a negative portrayal, however, could discourage someone from seeking help.
So I’m not saying that Hannah’s negative experience shouldn’t have been told. I’m saying that the alternative, where someone else does ask and receive help, should have been portrayed alongside this.
Issue Number Three:
I’ve seen a lot of people joking about the fact that a lot of her reasons seem completely irrational and this bothers me. I think that the reason she killed herself wasn’t actually on the tapes, because the reason she killed herself was that she was battling mental illness.
Mental illness makes possibly irrational things seem rational and so on the outset some of the reasons she has for killing herself should not seem appropriate to those not in the same state of mind. However, what I didn’t like was the way the show portrayed them as the only reasons for her actions. Emily Madriga says:
‘When Hannah’s mental pain became unbearable, it was due to her surviving a series of traumatic emotional events, yes, but more importantly it was due to her mental health — a battle that inappropriately takes place mostly off-screen.’
The issue here is not that Hannah leaves the tapes, it’s that we don’t see what’s going on behind the tapes. By portraying her story at face value, we are left with the idea that we are all ultimately responsible for each other’s mental health.
Yes, we do need to talk to each other about these things, and we do need to support each other, but sometimes that won’t be enough. And that does not mean that other’s actions are our fault. We can’t read each other’s minds.
Yes, we all need to look out for each other and be considerate of how our actions might affect others, that is so important, but we also need to be aware that most of us are not trained psychologists and so sometimes all we can do is support and lead friends, or ourselves, to people that actually have the knowledge, training and resources to help.
If Clay had told Hannah he loved her would that actually have saved her? If he had helped her identify what was really going on and led her to someone who could help then maybe he could have. But by not explaining what was going on behind the outright reasons the characters, as well as us, were left to believe that there was nothing else going on, when this was most likely not the case.
So to sum up there really was a lot that 13 Reasons Why did well. But there was also a lot that it did not do well, and I think these are things we should be aware of when consuming fiction dealing with such a complicated and delicate subject. BUT hopefully 13 Reasons Why’s popularity has paved the way for more responsible portrayals of mental health in fiction!