If you haven't heard of 13 Reasons Why by now, then I don't know where you've been. Originally released as a best-selling novel in 2007 by author Jay Asher, and now adapted as a wildly successful Netflix original series, the story of Hannah Baker is one that I think we all need to hear.
Just in case you have no clue what it is, here's my best attempt at summing it up (if you don't want spoilers, skip ahead or stop reading): 13 Reasons Why tells the absolutely heart-breaking story of a teenage girl who ends her own life after enduring repeated and cruel mistreatment by her peers. As alluded to by the title, before the suicide, Hannah records cassette tapes that contain the chronicles of the 13 reasons why she made that fatal decision. They were sort of her version of a suicide note. But instead of being left for her parents, they are given to one of the people she named responsible on the tapes, who is instructed to listen and hand them off to the next name on the list of culprits. And if, for some reason, this doesn't happen, Hannah warns that the tapes will be released in a very public way by a trusted individual. This would obviously not be in the interest of anyone on the tapes, who will do nearly anything to keep their secrets hidden.
The story is told from the perspective of Clay Jensen, a quiet boy who was desperately in love with Hannah, but finds himself on the tapes as reason number eleven anyway, because he failed to help her when she needed him most. As he listens apprehensively to all 13 tapes, he slowly pieces together the end of Hannah's life, and struggles to grapple with his own guilt, anger, and grief.
While she may be fictional, Hannah Baker's story is unfortunately very real. Many people have criticised the way the show decided to present and deal with certain aspects of this sensitive and controversial topic, and I agree with some of them. However, I personally think it's still worth the watch (or read), and is thankfully bringing lots of attention and awareness to a painfully important topic. As pointed out in the new Netflix series, what she went through is no different than what no doubt many others go through in and outside of high schools everywhere. And the sad part about it is, as a society, we've come to accept this unhealthy culture as a normal and necessary part of the high school experience. We know all of these awful things happen and that people quietly suffer, yet we seem to have a lack of concern for ways to fix it. We've accepted something that is completely unacceptable.
There are consequences for this. And to quote Clay, it has to get better. When we fail to even try to do the right thing, we fail all of the Hannahs of the world. We let people suffer, and we lose precious lives. I remember reading this book years ago, and the whole time hoping that there had to be a happy ending where it was all some elaborate hoax, and Clay somehow saves Hannah. And watching the Netflix series this past weekend, I felt the same way. But that would be the fairytale ending, and fairytales aren't real. In fact, author Jay Asher recently shared with fans that, originally, Hannah's character survived. Originally, the message was going to be to more of a cautionary tale about learning from mistakes and taking advantage of second chances. But then he realized that more often than not in real life situations like these, you don't get second chances. We have to learn how to get it right the first time. Which is why this story is such a powerful one. I think if we take away the right messages, we can start to move in the right direction; towards change, towards a culture where the "normal" high school experience doesn't push people to make the same decision that Hannah did.
1. You never know what someone is going through.
I know we hear this all the time, but I think the show did an exceptional job of reminding us of this. Even if someone looks happy or doesn't share their struggles explicitly, even if you think you know someone well, you just never know. Mental illness is typically not visible on the outside. No two people deal with their struggles in the same way, and there's certainly no right way to do so. So don't assume. Be kind, be respectful, do the right thing.
2. All actions have consequences.
No matter how big or small they are. Just because you might benefit or get some type of pleasure doesn't mean it's not going to hurt other people. Everything we do creates a ripple effect, and it's important to think about the consequences of taking action; because once it's done, you can't ever take it back. Think about how what you do will affect you, and everyone around you. It wasn't one thing that caused Hannah to kill herself, it was a series of ill-advised choices made by those around her that all added up, and maybe if just one of them had done something differently, her fate would have been different.
3. We need to hold people accountable for their actions.
Even if they're your best friend. If they did something wrong, call them out, tell them it's not cool and that you won't stand for it. Nothing is going to get better if we just stand by and watch. If you do nothing, you're part of the problem.
4. Nothing lasts forever.
Live life to the fullest, never waste an opportunity and tell the people you care about how much they mean to you while they can still hear you.
5. Know how to ask for help, and how to give it.
It's always okay to ask for help. If someone doesn't want to help, then you're asking the wrong person. Ask someone else. I promise there is someone who cares and wants to help however they can. Don't give up. On the flip side, listen when others are asking you for help, and do something about it. It might not be easy, but it's absolutely worth it. Maybe if Mrs. Bradley had done more when she knew that note was a cry for help, or if Clay hadn't given up and walked away so easily when he knew Hannah wasn't okay, or if Mr. Porter hadn't let Hannah walk away when she was so obviously in a dark place and reaching out for help, things would be different.
6. The small things really do mean the most.
When Zach stole the anonymous notes and small drawings from Hannah's bag in comm class, he had no idea how much happiness he was stealing from her. No matter how insignificant something may seem, it could make a world of difference to someone. So be thoughtful, put in that little bit of extra effort, and perform some random acts of kindness once in a while. You have no idea how much good you can do with just one minute of your time, one compliment, or even one friendly smile.
7. Be true to yourself.
Courtney's need to hide who she truly was in order to protect her reputation and avoid judgment created a whole big avoidable mess that left Hannah in the line of fire, and Courtney paranoid and no better off. As scary or difficult as it may be, just be honest about and with yourself, whoever or whatever that may be. Don't hide behind rumors and lies. Because your true friends will accept and support you no matter what.
8. And respect who other people are.
On the flip side, be respectful of who everyone else is and chooses to be. Not everyone is going to agree with you or lead the same lifestyle, but that's what makes the human race so incredible. Our diversity is something to celebrate, not hide, shame, or suppress. I think we can avoid a whole lot of pain, loneliness, and heartbreak if we could just embrace and encourage each other for our true selves.
9. If something, or someone, seems off, do something about it. You're better safe than sorry.
This is another one that we hear all the time, but it's worth being reminded of. If something seems not quite right, do something about it. The worst you could be is wrong, and then at least you tried to help if it was needed. You don't want to end up like Clay, wishing you hadn't given up and taken the easy way out.
10. Be a friend, not a bully. Spread love, not hate.
This one is simple but somehow seems to be forgotten. Just be kind, people.
11. You're not alone, you're not the only one.
Hannah wasn't the only one at that high school who was suffering. Each of those characters was going through their own things and dealing with their own struggles. Whatever you're going through, chances are there is someone around you that has gone or is going through the same thing. You don't have to go through it alone.
12. Rumors ruin lives.
The rate at which rumors can spread, and change, and spiral out of control, is scary. If the information isn't yours to share, then just don't share it. It's that simple.
13. Rape culture is REAL.
And we can't ignore it. This is presented multiples times and through multiple characters on the show. I'm not going to say much here, just because this is such a controversial and sensitive topic. I hope this isn't news to most people, but if it is, open your eyes. This needs to change, and it starts with all of us.
Whether you haven't read or watched 13 Reasons Why yet, or you have and can't stop thinking about it, I think these takeaways are always relevant and a good reminder to us all. Although, if you haven't read or seen it yet and don't plan to, I highly recommend changing that. It may be a sad story that's hard to watch, but it's also so much more than that. It's relatable, eye-opening, and so important.
We need more endings like the future Hannah said she could see with Clay, where everything was better and everything was okay. If you agree, let's make it happen.
If you or anyone you know of is struggling with suicidal thoughts please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, it's confidential, free, and available 24/7.