On March 31st, a show took Netflix by storm called “13 Reasons Why”. This show is based on the Jay Asher novel, which tells the story of Hannah Baker, a high school student, who leaves behind cassette tapes to those who played a part in her reasoning for taking her own life.
The show has received both positive and negative attention, with the latter being more popular. And, since its release, I have received messages from teachers, students, and parents, asking for my thoughts on the show.
I’ll start by saying I am not typically known for discussing my opinion on controversial topics…ever. I enjoy reading about others’ thoughts on both sides of any issue, but I never disclose my views. However, being that this is a topic that is extremely personal, and, at one point of my life, was a reality for me, I feel like it’d be wrong to not give my point of view. (Note: Spoilers ahead.)
Before I begin, I want to be clear that I am in no way saying that my opinion is correct. My boyfriend could tell you that these past weeks I’ve been constantly on my phone, reading every article there is reviewing this show – both the good and the bad ones – and I have heard compelling arguments for both sides. And, there are some things I won’t discuss for that reason, such as depicting Hannah’s suicide scene. Because, although it did not personally trigger me to feel suicidal at all, it can still impact someone negatively, depending on where they are mentally, and I won’t argue with that.
This is just coming from someone who, at one point in their life, had their own 13 Reasons Why. And, my hope is, at the very least, while you might not agree with everything I say, you may be able to see into the mind of someone like Hannah Baker…
The book came out in 2007, which was two years before I went to high school. I read it the year it came out and as a 13-year-old, I loved it. Although I had witnessed some minor bullying in middle school, for the most part, the concepts of suicide, bullying, and mental illnesses were irrelevant to my life. So, the take-home message that I had from this fictional novel was to be kind to everyone you meet because you don’t realize the impact you can have on another’s life.
Now, let’s fast-forward just two years.
These once irrelevant and distant concepts became extremely relevant to my life when I became the target of cyberbullying on Facebook. I was 15-years-old and a student at an all-girls private high school. My already low self-esteem plummeted even deeper. My insecurities and all the parts that I secretly hated about myself were brought to light and made into jokes for others’ pleasure. And, as the bullying grew, so did my feelings of worthlessness. As the bullying grew, so did my feelings of isolation. And, as the bullying grew, so did my suicidal thoughts.
I attempted suicide my sophomore year of high school. At this point, I was not diagnosed with a mental illness because I had never seen a mental health professional. But, although I did not have my diagnosis, it does not mean I did not have a mental illness when I contemplated and attempted suicide. Which brings me to the first claim I have read in articles:
1. The show does not depict “real” mental illness.
Okay. My question is, When did there become a one-size-fits-all for mental illnesses? It can look and feel differently for each person. If you don’t believe me, read the stories of those suffering from mental illnesses on my non-profit’s website, The Invisible Illnesses. No two stories are the same and there is not a prototype of how to act and feel when depressed. To say that the show does a horrible job at depicting mental illness, to me, is a poor argument. Although Hannah Baker is not diagnosed with depression, that does not mean that she does not have depression.
I had been suffering from depression for years prior to the bullying, but I did not know that at the time of my suicide attempt. According to Mental Health America, “1 in 5 American adults will have a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year.” But, most do not seek treatment and, therefore, remain undiagnosed. To those that say the actress playing Hannah does not show depression correctly makes me realize how many people still believe the misconstrued definition of depression. Because she is not crying, she must not be depressed, right? Wrong. In the last episode, Hannah is sitting with the school’s guidance counselor and he asks her “How are you feeling right now?” In her response, she uses these words: lost, empty, not feeling anything, doesn’t care about anything or anyone.
She also displays cognitive distortions that people with depression tend to have, such as all-or-nothing thinking. She states that she has no friends and that Clay Jenson hates her. Does Clay hate her? No. Does he and some classmates consider her a friend? Yes. But, due to her depression, she is not thinking clearly. She does not think about her parents who love her or anything positive. She only sees and believes the negative. When I attempted suicide, I genuinely was not thinking about how much my family loved me. Did I know they loved me? Deep down, yes. But, my brain told me I was worthless. My brain told me I was a burden. My brain told me it would be better if I was dead. And, unfortunately for me and for many who have lost their lives to suicide, that negative voice was stronger than the positive one.
2. The bullying wasn’t “that” bad until episode 7 or so.
Do you realize, that by saying that, you are simultaneously contributing to reasons why people do not seek help? Often, individuals think their problems or what they are going through is not “big” enough or does not matter because they know someone who has it worse. They begin thinking, Why do I feel like this? and suppress those feelings
Saying it doesn’t make sense for Hannah to contemplate suicide until the rape is saying there a scale of when it is okay to take your own life and when it is not. Like, “Oh, she was raped in episode 12 so this makes more sense now of why she killed herself. But, if she wasn’t raped, that wouldn’t make sense.” Some even have come up to me after a talk and said “I was bullied and attempted suicide before. But, I wasn’t as badly bullied, you had it way worse.
I hate that. There is no scale to measure when it is okay to kill yourself and when it is not. Absolutely no one should take their own life. But, absolutely everyone should reach out for help, even if they feel their problems aren’t that big. It is okay not to be okay, so long as you take the steps to move forward.
3. Hannah uses her suicide as revenge to get back at the bullies, which provides a negative message to viewers.
I can definitely see why some may have this opinion. However, I did not see it as a sick revenge when reading the book or watching the show. When someone kills themselves, there are often so many questions for those left behind, but the most common one is, Why? We never see into the mind of someone who took their own life because they are not here to provide that to us.
And, most genuinely do not have a definitive reason. The depression could be genetic or it could just take over their thoughts, leaving them feeling like there is no other option. Anyone who is suicidal is not thinking rationally or clearly. However, being someone who attempted suicide after being severely bullied, I’d be lying if I said it never crossed my mind to tell those people what they did to make me hate myself as much as they told me they hated me. Is that wrong? Maybe you think it is.
There is a term called Bullycide, meaning death by suicide as the result of bullying. Although this is a TV Show based on a fictional novel, this idea is not unique or uncommon. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among teenagers. That is not to say if someone is bullied they will contemplate suicide. But, there are those who will, myself including. I did not see Hannah doing this for revenge, but more so as a lesson to teach about bullying and the way we treat other human beings.
There was not one specific reason that I attempted to take my own life. There were hundreds of little reasons…hundreds of hateful things I was told about myself. That I believed about myself. And these small things began to add up. Ultimately, I know I would have been the reason I took my own life, but I will say there were plenty of reasons that led me to that point of attempting. However, I am fortunate that, unlike Hannah, I did not succeed because my life back then is significantly different than my life now.
4. By showing the guidance counselor failing to help Hannah, it is going to cause kids to not reach out for help.
Again, I can 100% see this point of view when watching. However, I personally feel that, unfortunately, the show depicted the truth about some counseling. And, if discussed with adolescents and teens correctly, this scene could be more beneficial than harmful.
I have gone to many therapists and counselors throughout the past seven years and some were amazing, but some were not-so-amazing. By showing the counselor’s failed attempt at helping Hannah, it shows the reality that a specific therapist may not be the right one for you. Sadly, Hannah did not reach out to anyone else for help after him, but I think the message that we should take away and tell those suffering is that if someone does not help you, that can happen, but to keep reaching out to others.
5. Clay is on the tapes even though he did not directly do anything to Hannah
I will say, I was frustrated during the scene where she tells him to leave and he leaves. Unfortunately, this again goes back to the cognitive distortions and irrational thinking that come with depression. However, I do believe Clay should be on the tapes to demonstrate the importance of being a bystander.
In every episode, Clay witnesses what happens to Hannah. For example, when he received the photo of her that Justin took, he never asked her if she was okay or questions the rumors he heard. Instead, what does he do? Nothing.
In bullying prevention, bystanders are seen as just as bad as the bullies themselves. I’ve said this before, but if one person had reached out to me and asked if I was okay, I would have told them no, I was not, and that I needed a friend or needed help. But, no one ever asked and everyone believed what they heard. They just silently watched what happened to me. And, I personally think they were just as harmful as those who actively bullied me.
Like I said before, these are my personal thoughts and takeaways from the show based on the experiences I have lived through.
To parents reading this, I think this is an important show to watch and discuss with your children. Children watching alone may interpret some of the messages in a negative way, but if you can openly discuss with them about bullying, depression, suicide, and reaching out for help, then I think we can move the conversation in the right direction.
If you are going through something similar to Hannah Baker or feel as I used to feel, please remember you can always get help. Remember that your life could be completely different next week, next month, next year, and that suicide is never the answer. And, if you do not have someone you feel comfortable talking to, call the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Hotline at: 1(800)-273-8255.
And, I hope we can all agree on one thing about this show: that we need to be kind to one another. We do not know what anyone is going through and our words can impact someone more than we realize.
“Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.”