Hailed as a powerful foray into the realm of teenage suicide, on first glance, the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why appears to be exactly that—a wake-up call to parents, teens, teachers and schools everywhere about the warning signs, triggers and causes of teenage suicide, a growing problem throughout America. However, 13 Reasons Why is more than just a warning about our friends, family members, students—it actively promotes suicide as a viable response to normal teenage problems.
Teenagers nowadays have a hard time. With the advent of iPhones and social media, the drama that once stopped at the borders of the schoolyard now follows them home and permeates their houses. Trying to navigate the social pressures, on top of academic pressure and the stress of applying to colleges, can push many teenagers to their breaking points—as in the case of Hannah Baker, a junior trying to survive in a hostile school environment. After suffering social isolation and rejection, failed attempts to reach out to other students and the school counselor, sexual harassment and eventually rape, Hannah Baker makes the choice to take her own life—but she leaves behind 13 cassette recordings, intended for the 13 people she holds personally responsible for her suicide.
The series begins a little while after her suicide with a boy named Clay Jensen, who had crushed on Hannah Baker ever since she moved to town her sophomore year. He receives the cassette tapes anonymously in a package in the mail. Most of Hannah's story is told in flashback as he listens to the tapes. There is no denying that Hannah suffered in her life—she was rejected repeatedly by those she tried to befriend, harassed and taken advantage of by numerous boys, and eventually raped by the captain of the football team—a few weeks after she watched him rape another girl, unconscious, at a party.
However, that is exactly the problem with the series—the 13 tapes act to justify her suicide. The series addresses rampant problems in our schools—problems like bullying, inept school counselors and sexual assault (or at the very least, a twisted understanding of consent)—but it seems to agree with Hannah's decision to kill herself. Millions of teenagers deal with the same problems that Hannah did, but the series, instead of giving those kids a message of hope for the future, promotes suicide. I almost felt like the show was telling me that suicide is an appropriate response to my problems.
13 Reasons Why was trying to call out parents, teachers and teenagers to look for warning signs, to be kind and to be there for your children, students and classmates. But in the process, it sent a subliminal message that if you are that teenager who is considering suicide and you try and fail to reach out to the people around you—it's perfectly okay to commit suicide to resolve your problems. Not only that, but it's also perfectly okay to blame everyone around you.
In the end, almost always, those who are seriously considering suicide are suffering from a mental illness, oftentimes a form of depression. Mental illness isn't a joke or "all in your head"—it's a legitimate problem that you can't deal with on your own. But Hannah never reaches out to her parents, and when she tries and fails to reach out to her school counselor, the series even furthers its negative message—that your school counselor doesn't really care and can't help you. Sure, there are bad school counselors who are unqualified and don't want to help out their students. But that isn't the case for every school counselor, and teenagers who reach out to their school counselors can oftentimes find the help that they need.
There is often an unspoken stigma about suicide, that victims of suicide just wanted attention or that their mental illness isn't "real." Should that be the case? No; people who commit suicide need help, not stigmatization. 13 Reasons Why combated that stigmatization... by pushing blame the other way. Instead of blaming Hannah, the series blamed all the people around her who "failed" her. Were a lot of the people on her tapes awful to her? Absolutely. But in the end not one of them held a gun to her head and forced her to cut her wrists. Not one of them gave her the razor blades or forced her to do it. It was Hannah's choice. She needed help; she didn't get it; and suicide was her answer. She should have reached out to her parents, in the same way that those people around her should have reached out to her and should have seen the signs. But no one is to blame. Suicide is a tragedy—a preventable tragedy, with the right help—but nonetheless a tragedy. Hannah doesn't deserve to be blamed any more than the people around her.
With that said, there were characters that did awful things to her, and they should be held accountable for their actions. For example, Bryce Walker, who we saw raped at least two girls, should be prosecuted. Gossip and rumor-spreading should be addressed with all high school students—because everyone is guilty of it at one point or another. But that doesn't mean that we should hold those other people directly accountable for someone's suicide. There is always more we can do to help people who are considering suicide, in the same way that there is always more the victim can do to try to reach out and find help. Suicide is a tragedy for everyone involved, not a crime to those who could have stopped it, but 13 Reasons Why perpetuated it as such.
Overall, 13 Reasons Why made a point about looking for the signs and being there for your peers and children. But on the topic of suicide, it failed utterly and gave a dangerous message—that suicide is justifiable, even inevitable. Hannah Baker's death was not justifiable, nor was it inevitable; if you are considering suicide, there are ways to get help and to improve your situation, and 13 Reasons Why portrayed her problems as unbearable, her feelings as unresolvable, neither of which is true. I just hope that the teenagers watching it are aware of that and know to get help before they turn to suicide.