The summer before I started my freshman year of high school, I went with my stepfather to our local library every other week and checked out as many books as the librarian would allow. Usually my stack was seven or eight books high; it was a peak year for young adult literature, with about fifteen vampire or post-apocalpyse themed books for every one piece of realistic fiction on the YA shelves. I was a voracious reader, and, in the height of my "emo" phase, curious about the buzz around Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why, which had been out for several years. It was a book popular enough that neither library in my area had it on the shelf from week to week, and, being an impatient fourteen year-old, I didn't want to bide my time on the hold list for it to be returned. When Netflix released a television adaptation of the book, my interest was piqued.
The show, like the bestselling book, follows high schooler Clay Jensen as he listens to a set of cassette tapes left behind by his classmate Hannah Baker, who died by suicide. The tapes chronicle the titular thirteen reasons why she decided to take her own life, each one attributed to a classmate at her and Clay's school.
Much has been written about the show already - about its concerning, graphic, and irresponsible depictions of suicide, self harm, and rape, how it trivializes or downplays mental illnesses, and about how it seems to champion the narrative that others are to blame for Hannah's suicide without offering any hope for her character. Considering Netflix's recent announcement to renew the show for a third season and losses of celebrities to suicide, there is no better time to talk about how Thirteen Reasons Why is disrespectful to those battling mental illnesses or affected by suicides.
The writers and producers of the show claim that it's meant to inspire viewers to be kinder to those around them. When added to the plot point of each "reason" for Hannah's death being a classmate who hurt her, the intended message comes dangerously close to reifying the societal tendencies to place blame for suicides on close family members and friends. Relatives, former romantic partners, and friends are often saddled with blame from outside observers, whether it be through pointed questions about missing "warning signs", snide remarks on "what more could have been done", or withering looks from acquaintances. The series also seems to paint Hannah in a selfish light, making her reactions to the mistreatment and abuse she faces almost into over-reactions, leading many viewers to be unable to sympathize with her. What's more, the show never depicts Hannah asking for or receiving help in any way, making taking her own life seem like the only option she - and potentially anyone else in a similar situation - has.
None of these things, of course, are true. Though suicides are common causes of death in many states , victims of suicide are never to blame, nor are the direct actions of those around them. Untreated mental illness and inadequate access to life-saving resources are. While Thirteen Reasons Why certainly opened a dialogue about mental illness, it's because the show failed viewers with the mental illnesses it was attempting to portray, not because it offers a message of hope or strength.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal feelings or depression, please reach out for help. Crisis lines for your community can be found here, and further resources are available at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.