TW: Suicide and rape
When "13 Reasons Why" first premiered in 2017, it sparked outrage.
While teenagers flocked to watch the show, many worried about the ways that mentally ill people were being portrayed in the series. Still, the popularity of the source material, the book "13 Reasons Why" by Jay Asher, drove millions of viewers to watch. A series about a teenage girl, Hannah Baker, committing suicide somehow debuted with no trigger warnings, failing to warn people with mental health issues about how graphic and triggering the content was. Parents and schools issued warnings about the series, obviously seeing issues with how "13 Reasons Why" could affect its target audience. Netflix moved to add warnings to several episodes, including one featuring a scene in which Hannah is raped, after the outcry and added a special PSA episode, but still, the damage had already been done.
A series that attempted to deromanticize suicide had the complete opposite effect.
Mental health experts agree that suicides are "contagious" in a way, in that whenever they appear in the news, the suicide rate increases. Featuring a graphic suicide scene in a highly-watched Netflix show, no matter the intention, may prompt viewers to commit suicide as well. For this reason, the WHO guidelines for reporting or representing suicide in media recommend the following:
For every applicable guideline, "13 Reasons Why" failed.
In favor of pursuing a bold artistic direction, the team producing the show, including singer/actress Selena Gomez who acted as Executive Producer for the series, chose to ignore these guidelines. The hope of the show was to show the painful, gruesome act of suicide in all of its goriness to de-glamorize it. In doing this, they ignored years of research on the consequences of showing the method by which someone commits suicide. Even the core concept of the show depicts suicide as a means of revenge and falsely gives justifications for suicide when there never is, in fact, a single "reason why."
Showing Hannah committing suicide was a reckless decision that should have been corrected two years ago, not now.
It should not have taken years of outcry for the scene to be cut. Netflix had to be coaxed into putting basic, non-explicit warnings before the rape and suicide scenes. It's PSA episode was a half-hearted attempt to remedy the show's countless errors. Most of all, the show seemed to learn nothing from its first season, causing outcry yet again by depicting a graphic sexual assault that seems to lead a student to attempt to commit a mass shooting. The show yet again fails people with mental health issues and tries to defend itself from criticism by lauding itself for portraying real-world issues that other shows are seemingly too afraid to do.
The reason why these issues are not portrayed in such a brutally honest way is that they need to be dealt with sensitively, something that "13 Reasons Why" has not yet learned.
Until people with mental health issues are given more control over their representation in the media, the obstacles that they face will never be properly demonstrated in any form of media. The stigma surrounding mental health is very real, and while shows like "13 Reasons Why" try to tackle that, no show has done it right, YET. That does not mean it's not possible. It does mean it's not possible unless people who have faced the mental health issues being portrayed have a say in how they are represented.
Want to fix mental health representation in media? Give people with mental health issues a voice.