‘13 Reasons Why’ does not glamorize suicide but there’s room for improvement

By Alexander Steffanus | April 25th, 2017
Courtesy photo of 13 Reasons Why

Bloggers, news writers and social media users are claiming that “13 Reasons Why” is a potentially harmful Netflix Original series for depressed teens and suicide survivors. Is it really, and furthermore, is that really the issue?

Netflix is known for some major original hit series, and its latest addition caused controversy unlike any in recent record. “13 Reasons Why” is a drama that plays out in 13 episodes, documenting the months leading up to high school student Hannah Baker’s death, narrated in her own words.

The show has earned some mixed reviews, and it’s not at all what one would call Netflix’s crowning achievement. However, the show raised endless ethical questions about the main subject of the show. That is, that Baker died and her death is the fault of several students who did nothing to help her.

Suicide is a serious issue, and a series about it would conceivably do everything in its power to handle the subject with immense sensitivity. The cast created a separate short segment explaining their artistic decisions throughout the show. In it, they explain the importance of creating uncomfortable and traumatizing scenes to more effectively raise awareness of serious issues.

The claim made by the show’s critics is that its creators sensationalized the act of suicide and therefore put a lot of self-harm contemplators at serious risk. The citation for this theory stems from a list of do’s and don’ts about how media outlets need to address cases of suicide if they want to avoid assisting self-harmers.

“13 Reasons Why” ignores several of the don’ts listed: They list the victim’s name, they repeatedly refer to her death as a suicide and even say that “she killed herself.” They not only mention but also display the methodology of Baker’s death, and they sensationalize her death by making an entire series about it.

I disagree with the notion that “13 Reasons Why” glamorized Baker’s death as many have claimed. Yes, it evoked sympathy for Baker and anger for her peers, but the series is more than a lesson learned for her “killers.”

Each person responsible for Baker’s death had problems of their own, and many of them experienced some form of bullying. One of them attempts self-harm toward the end, a conflict which presumably will be resolved if the series can contract a second season.

By the end of the series, it’s clear that Baker wasn’t some insightful victim who had no choice. She was presented with opportunities to seek help, but she had closed herself off to the possibility of continuing her life.

I personally found the series enlightening in the most shell-shocking sense. It felt real, it felt gritty and unbearable, and there are many things I won’t ever think about the same way. Among other revelations, the show reminded me how perilous a teenager’s mind can be, and I’ve since dwelled on the fact that I can’t know what another person is going through.

On the other hand, the show is definitely a trigger to some people; one of my closest friends had a panic attack watching it, and she hasn’t finished the series. She doesn’t want to.

We’ve all been high schoolers. We know how terrible life can be for teenagers. All of us have had some morbid and depressing thoughts during that time, and many of us, myself included, have contemplated an end to our suffering.

We can’t control whether vulnerable teens will seek out a certain series, but we can prevent harm to people who aren’t aware of what they’re getting into. While a drama series isn’t as ubiquitous as news media, it would have been nice for the creators of this show to put a warning label in its summary or first episode instead of just at the beginning of its last three episodes.

I understand that the warnings are usually good enough, and most people just need mental preparation. Self-harm is different, however, in that many at-risk individuals intentionally look for these images. If a person watching a Netflix series about suicide gets as far as episode 10 without knowing how graphic the ending will be, they’ll likely be sucked into watching those final episodes for the satisfaction of completing it as well as witnessing the kind of imagery they crave.

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