mental health

Thirteen Reasons Why Does Nothing For Mental Health Representation

I’ve seen mixed opinions on Thirteen Reasons Why and decided I wanted to put my own two cents on it so here we go! A little disclaimer, this is all my personal opinion, let’s keep this a friendly and open discussion.

Television is a representation, nothing will ever fully represent in a wholly objective and accurate way the complexity of suicide, rape and all the emotions that come with it. As Thirteen Reasons Why is a piece of fiction and thus the audience are expecting it to be 1) a piece of fiction so therefore most take what they see with a pinch of salt (whether mental health advocates, critics etc like that) 2) entertaining (raising the argument should mental health be used for entertainment purposes?) (don’t try and tell me it’s not entertainment – it’s fictional TV, it is) and 3) not a representation of the truth.

Stay with me here, if I was watching a BBC4 documentary on Suicide I’d expect it to use certain features that to me as an audience member suggest truth and objectivity such as a voice-over or a fly on the wall camera. Thirteen Reasons Why does not contain these features and therefore they have to work harder to create something that both represents suicide, rape and mental health in the correct manner but also to create something that makes an audience member stop and think about what they’ve seen and possibly change their actions, television’s civic purpose.

Firstly, I didn’t enjoy it as a piece of television. For the most part I was bored. I had to really force myself to watch it and I LOVE television. I’m in no way a TV snob and love “trashy” TV and teen drama TV as well so that wasn’t the problem. I also have a geeky obsession with health communication, so I thought this would be right down my alley but I was just bored. That to me doesn’t scream “I’m representing mental health in a way an audience will remember, take on board and change their actions so they think about their friend who may be feeling suicidal” it says “I’ll put this on in the background for a bit of background noise”.

Suicide is complex. In my opinion Thirteen Reasons Why doesn’t demonstrate that. It doesn’t show how you get to suicidial tendencies through low mood, withdrawal, hopelessness among others symptoms. It is very narrow, bullying can yes equal suicide but it most cases it doesn’t.  It focuses on blame and guilt and betrayal. Yes, all these things add up to and link to low moods but the way the other teenagers are blamed and take on the guilt for Hannah’s suicide made me really uncomfortable. For example, Hannah gets angry at her ex for not telling her she was now dating Jessica, why should he? I especially felt for Clay, who felt like he had killed Hannah, no Hannah’s mental health killed her. Why doesn’t someone tell him this instead of Tony telling him he did in fact kill Hannah.

I’d like to add here I’m not suggesting Hannah is to blame, I don’t think anyone is to blame for suicide. Although the others’ behaviour towards her will have contributed to her feelings, they are not at fault. Hannah’s mental illness was, no matter what this was going to leave her with sucicidal tendencies. Why isn’t mental health mentioned? That wouldn’t however have made a thirteen episode series for Netflix that brought in ratings and money and television is a capitalist commodity. Sorry for the cynicism.

The counsellor, Mr Porter, represents what would happen but not what should happen. If a young person, adult even was to be watching this as a rape victim thinking YES this will give me the confidence to speak up, I think they will end feeling deflated and betrayed. Yes, that is exactly what they want you to feel, they want you to feel angry for Hannah, feel what she feels. It shows the downsides of the system, but it doesn’t do anything to show a sufferer they can speak up. There is no “it gets better” message, nothing that shows there is so much more beyond high school. As mentioned before, this is fiction so it has the artistic license to go the extra mile and maybe show a positive counselling session, it still wouldn’t of saved Hannah, but it still would have happened. That would have removed tape thirteen though, one less person to blame, and giving the series less depth. For a show that was all about choice, Hannah had no choice but suicide which does show the lack of awareness around mental health and how to help someone with a mental health problem. I do believe however the producers did have the choice to balance out the negatives with some positive and they didn’t take this step.

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Mr Porter was right in episode thirteen when he said “you can’t love someone back to life”. Being surrounded by family and friends doesn’t change anything, if you are having suicidal thoughts, nothing can change that. Being reminded that you are loved doesn’t make you feel better it makes you feel worse, why am I feeling this when I’m loved? This is the main problem I have with Thirteen Reasons Why, it places the blame on individuals. It leads them to feel guilty. There’s often a preconceived stereotype that suicide is selfish due to the people you leave behind and what they are feeling. Hannah places the blame onto everyone else and leaving behind tapes, although it is the whole premise of the show it is vindictive. On the other hand, I do understand why she felt the need to end her life and it does show how anyone can feel suicidal, rich, poor, surrounded by family and friends or not so much. Additionally, if someone who was suicidal was watching this and saw the pain of everyone who was left behind it may be a deterrent.

The last episode, is the only episode to me that talks about mental health and the signs of suicide. For a series that has been praised on its representation of mental health that isn’t good at all. As a media student with a real interest in research methods (what a hoot) I carried out a content analysis of episodes 11-13. As you can see from my coding there was one reference to mental health, nor was there any of anxiety and depression which I understand the show doesn’t focus on but when I sat down to watch I was expecting them to at least be mentioned. The only code that marked above five in all three episodes was blame. For me that is what Thirteen Reasons Why focuses on displaying, a blame game. It does nothing for mental health representation.

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So where do I stand on the graphic nature of the actual suicide? I didn’t watch it. I couldn’t bring myself to as I was putting my own mental health first. When I was younger and in a darker place I probably would’ve googled that. It’s dangerous. The trigger warnings at the beginning aren’t enough and I don’t like the argument well showing the graphic nature would put people off suicide. Maybe, but I think it will do more harm than good to someone in a dangerous place and Netflix should have done more. The hype around this show may also lead younger viewers to watch it if they don’t have age restrictions on their Netflix accounts, not Netflix’s fault, but still needs to be considered very carefully.

So is there anything I think it does well? Yes. I think it shows really well the complexities of being a teenager in this internet age, bullying, rape culture, slut shaming, revenge porn, I think it displays these for everything they are. Also it does tackle suicide, I couldn’t name you another show predominantly aimed at young people that does that, so I suppose it does have to be celebrated for opening up the conversation. It really has opened up a conversation, I’ve never seen such a reaction from the mental health community and beyond, it has been everywhere. As a media student that excites me! We’ve talked a lot this year on one of modules about how no one is watching television anymore, and although this was Netflix, it has got in viewing figures and got people talking about it, so it has done well there.

I also think Jess is a wonderful character and the change in her character from the beginning to end shows exactly what can happen to people after trauma in a different way to Hannah’s situation. The drugs, the alcohol, her erratic behaviour and mood swings. I felt genuine happiness when Jess opened up to her dad in the last episode and I’m very glad that was shown. I also really liked the way Clay asked Skye in the last episode how she was and could they hang out. He understood what he missed with Hannah and is now changing his actions which is what you can only ever hope for.

I’m not a fan however of the fact there’s going to be a season two. The memes that have arose from Thirteen Reasons Why show it has become a bit of a joke and sensationalised. “My mum didn’t buy chicken nuggets, welcome to your tape” – this is exactly why suicide isn’t taken seriously. A large quantity of the audience will have no prior knowledge of mental health and I don’t think they’re leaving with any either really, especially when memes like this is what they see and remember. Memes are funny, so suicide must be too, lets sensationalise it, right?

Let’s hope something better comes along.

What’s your opinion on Thirteen Reasons Why?

Lots of love, Rose x

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4 thoughts on “Thirteen Reasons Why Does Nothing For Mental Health Representation

  1. Do you not think that season 2 could be a good opportunity to show the side of Hannah that’s off camera in the first? Like her actual decline into depression? I totally agree that friends can’t necessarily cure depression but I do believe that I wouldn’t be here without my friends now. I didn’t like most of this series but I thought the depiction of her parents and their grief was really good. I do find it problematic people saying ‘that’s not why people commit suicide’ or ‘that’s unrealistic’ when so many people w mental health issues have experienced sexual assault. Mental illness is ugly and perhaps it was wrong to leave the tapes (especially for everyone bar like the counsellor and the rapist obviously) but depression can turn you pretty bitter. Love your post and love discussing the representation of mental health in the media xxx

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    1. Totally if season two was to do that, but I don’t think it will. I totally understand what you’re saying about the friends and it’s good they did show what they didn’t do but I don’t like how much blame was the focus. I think the sexual assault was also handled really well and like you said a massive factor that maybe I didn’t articulate well enough. Thanks for the comment xx

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