© 2018 by Patrick Sullivan

Is 13 Reasons Why a helpful representation of mental health issues?

August 8, 2018

Since the release of its first season on 31st March 2017, 13 Reasons Why has become the controversial TV series of our times. From the first moment, we are acutely aware the teenage narrator, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), has killed herself and her voice is the cassette tapes  she left for fellow youngsters to hear her story.


Then in the second season, released last month on Netflix, her suicide, as well as the attempted suicide of classmate Alex (Miles Heizer), is analysed even further. Much of the action occurs in the courtroom as her distraught mother (Kate Walsh) takes on the school she believes was responsible for her wellbeing.


Dramatising the all-too-common tragedy of suicide is nothing new. From Arthur Miller and Shakespeare to Sophocles of ancient Greece, the subject has been present across many of the greatest, and most respected, works as long as drama itself. The question is not whether it is appropriate to use suicide as a plot point in fictional dramas - for the most real and serious issues provide the basis for the most moving dramas and darkest comedies - but whether 13 Reasons Why is a safe and accurate portrayal of teenage suicide, rape, and mental illness for its target audience.


Importantly, 13 Reasons Why is an original Netflix production. It means the show is exempt from the public complaints that pressurise broadcast television (or networks in the US) to produce mass-pleasing, sanitised content. I have no doubt the graphic scene featuring Hannah, seventeen years old, killing herself slowly in the bath would have smashed the Ofcom complaints chart into cultural relevance. But, luckily for Netflix, the sheer amount of shows and films keeps their subscriber base and income, such that individual content creators have less pressure to present complex and hefty issues to be agreeable for all. In the case of 13 Reasons Why however, should Netflix be held accountable for their management of sensitive content? 


Not only is there the graphic and realistic depiction of Hannah’s suicide in Season 1, but there are numerous scenes involving violent rape and assault. In the recent second season, another high schooler and victim of severe bullying, Tyler Down (Devin Druid), has a key story arc dangerously associating his mental health and loneliness with his becoming a gun sympathiser, which culminates in him taking an assault rifle all the way to the front of his school gates. Earlier, in the same, final episode of the season, a scene shows a group of baseball jocks slamming his head on the sinks before forcefully shoving a broomstick up his arsehole in a toilet cubicle. The aggressive filmmaking approach has been met with mixed reactions on review website IMDB and social media.


The show is a very American high school take on a worldwide issue. We only have to look at our doorstep here at Bristol University to see ten suicides and an unknown amount of suicide attempts in a two year period. It is a personal issue for all of us. Taking away the guns and the stereotypical high school environment, it is refreshing to see an educational institution being openly questioned after a student suicide.


The criticisms of the first season were mainly focussed on the glorification of Hannah’s decision to kill herself - that the step-by-step narrative layering could give real life suffering teenagers the impression that her suicide is justified. I believe that to be somewhat true - Hannah’s tone of voice is omniscient and righteous through the storytelling device of the tapes, and therefore easily misconstrued.


The creator, Brian Yorkey, and his production team have taken this criticism on board. Without the restriction of the tapes, the numerous voices of the ensemble drive the narrative both in and out of the courtroom and a more balanced, objective conclusion appears: no, Hannah Baker should not have killed herself.


 The strongest voices with regards to this are Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), Hannah’s mother Olivia, and Alex. Throughout the second season, Langford’s role as Hannah is continued through imagined conversations with Clay, where he laments to her about his anguish. It is important for the show to express less ambiguously the effects on loved ones and, after long stretches of anger, self-blame, and grief, the conclusions Clay and Olivia have together directly addresses the first season criticisms.


Alex is a key character in this discussion. The first season concludes with a cliffhanger: his suicide attempt. He amazingly survives a gunshot to the head to return in the second season, conveniently forgetting the thoughts, feelings, and, of course, tapes that led him to his decision. The writers create parallels with his Season 2 storyline but with greater awareness shown by characters around him - his parents, his classmates, medical and pastoral care. When his memory returns, with a handgun remaining unused on his desk, the message reflects the positive impact such support and awareness can have.


The key issue with both seasons is the scattered focus. There are too many characters, too many plotlines, and too many points of contention. Every episode, they introduce another aspect, it seems, just to maintain the high levels of tension. The managing of the rape cases and portrayals of psychopathic, high school rapist Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) and key victim Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) are detailed, believable, and multi-layered, as they should be with such a weighty topic. However, Hannah’s depression - not the suicide itself or events in her life - is left underdeveloped.


Her depression is portrayed as a consequence of accumulated bullying and mistreatment, rather than as an illness. There was one brief mention of Hannah’s mother earlier suffering with mental health in Season 2 and a potential hereditary link, but otherwise it is the events that are the implied cause. While Hannah’s traumatic year at Liberty High would have triggered any underlying depression, there is lacking a wholly accurate representation in Hannah’s case.


The first season shows Hannah’s spiral largely through her own perspective with clear signals of suffering. The clarity is crucial, however hard it is to watch. The second season, however, muddies the water by questioning her state of mind in the courtroom. Depression can be triggered at any time by the smallest of things and a support network is needed to drag us from the murky depths. The other teenage perspectives in the courtroom are distracting from that all-important message. Jumbling the chronology throughout the season also adds to the confusion with several sides of Hannah shown from before and during the deterioration of her mental wellbeing. Unfortunately, the dramatisation techniques used betray any profound portrayal achieved.


The school are accountable for many pastoral failings, the teenagers are accountable for intense bullying and a sexist, elitist culture, the parents are accountable for being oblivious, yet Hannah is responsible for her own death. It is a situation we all recognise: our university must implement a more effective support system going forward with clear, caring communications; we, as a student body, have to establish an inclusive culture of outreach and community; parents of freshers must be included in any system so they can trust their offspring are being cared for. It is a relevant obsession with blame that is shown in 13 Reasons Why, with everyone involved either dodging blame or wrongly inflicting it upon themselves. However, the overriding fault is that the courtroom is a setting that misrepresents mental illness. 


The potential effects of 13 Reasons Why are many fold; it could trigger similar suffering, it could reinforce outdated opinions about suicide and mental health, it could exaggerate the effects of events over mindset. It is not a cautious, measured approach to presenting depression and, now Season 3 has been announced, one suspects the producers will continue to revisit Hannah’s character to try and redeem their missteps. 

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