Since the controversial Netflix original 13 Reasons Why was released March 31st, it’s been hard not to notice all the controversial topics the show has raised up such as suicide, bullying, rape, and even the tiny details leading up to a school shooting. Before we begin, for those of you who haven’t seen the show, this is definitely spoiler material, so avert thine eyes, grab some popcorn, get informed, and come back when you’ve joined the vast majority. 

The show is based off of the 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher and follows the story of a young girl who recently committed suicide, but left behind a series of tapes in hopes of shedding light on some of the most horrific reasons why she felt death was her only option. As the tapes progress, you begin to see the darker side of each and every character involved, and, although some of the reasons may seem like typical high school behavior, there are certainly several reasons that would absolutely scar anyone who had to go through them.

However, since the show’s release, a lot of people have been extremely upset with the way the show supposedly “glorifies” and “dramatizes” suicide, as they feel that the show does not seem to take the issue as seriously as it should. A lot of individuals believe that the show influences young minds in exactly the wrong way by showing them that revenge can be given to them through suicide, and that suicide is poetic in nature. However, perhaps this isn’t what the show is about at all.

Throughout the show, Clay Jensen discusses each situation with the people involved and, although there’s no excuse for Bryce, most of the individuals on her tapes are going through stuff that is fairly similar to the things happening in her own life — and these “13 reasons” have reasons for happenning of their own. For instance, Alex was upset that he couldn’t make love to the girl he loved more than anything and his father always tried to mold him into someone he clearly is not. Because of the struggles in his life, he added Hannah and Jessica to the best and worst list. This was really only meant to make Jessica mad, which may have been dumb, but not horrendous. Similarly, we also know that Justin was not the one who sent out the picture of Hannah and, although he played into the “guy gossip” of the school, his problems at home were far worse than the bickering of Hannah’s mother and father.

Although we could go through each character individually, it’s important to understand the true facts that come into play with suicide and then to recognize what the show may actually be about, which is a far more noble approach to the subject. Once this is done, we can finally put the anger aside, see the value in showing this series to high school students, and reflect on the true message it is actually giving off, rather than the one people are plastering on it.

The Facts: A Permanent Solution

to a Temporary Problem

Although it may be difficult to discuss without feeling some level of discomfort, the truth is that youth suicide rates are disproportionately high in America’s teen population. In fact, suicide remains the leading cause of death for children under the age of 14 and has grown more than 50 percent over the last three decades. Whether it be because of bullying, sexual harassment, or even things they experience at home, the effects are virtually always the same. No one wants to hear about a young life being lost because of a world they felt they could not handle, and, in turn, people that may not have even known the person tend to sympathize with the mourning and feel a sense of depression themselves.

However, to fully understand just how common this is and how startling the statistics can be, we must first take a look at some of these facts that solidify the commonalities behind everything Hannah was dealing with.In the show, Hannah has moved to a different school, she is sexually harassed, she is bullied, she loses her only friends, her parents begin to fight and put other things before her, she experiences a death she feels partly responsible for, and she is raped, which her counselor does very little about. Each of these situations are unfortunately fairly common in the average high school, so it is most certainly a topic which deserves to be discussed.

So let’s take a look at the cold hard facts that back this controversial show. For starters, Hannah moves to a new town. Although a move can be fun and exciting, a new study ran by Dr. Roger T. Webb, Ph.D., from the Centre for Mental Health and Safety at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, suggests that moving houses in childhood increases suicide risk. During the study, Webb was able to deduce that the ones facing the highest suicide risks were among those people who frequently moved during the early adolescence period, which is 12-14 years of age.

Although various other studies suggest that Americans are not moving like they used to, there are still countless families that move at very inopportune times in their child’s life, such as during high school — where finding friends and fitting in are already hard enough. With suicide being the third leading cause of death and taking the lives of over 4,600 people a year in the United States alone, this kind of an impact on an individual in a crucial part of development in their lives could become a very high contributing factor to them being at risk for committing suicide.

After Hannah moves to the new city with her family, she meets Justin and decides to pursue a relationship with him. However, after spending a night with him in the park solely kissing, a photo surfaces and is distributed throughout the school of her lifted skirt —  the photo was taken by Justin just as she slid down a slide towards him. With the photo comes a rumor that he went all the way with Hannah in the park, and this is where the sexual bullying begins. The unsettling truth is that sexual harassment is quite often tied to depression and suicide, and yet nearly half of students are sexually harassed in school. With social media, a whole new chapter in harassment has been opened, and it has become far easier to completely ruin someone’s image without actually being there to do it. Last year alone, 43 percent of teens aged 13 to 17 reported some form of cyber bullying targeting them. For Hannah, this was also something that ultimately created a butterfly effect leading up to her death. This is far from fiction. In fact, 87 percent of students say that suicide is motivated by a desire to “get back at those who have hurt them.”

After the bullying continues and Alex adds Jessica’s name to the list, Courtney betrays Hannah, and most of her friends turn their backs on her. Hannah feels as though she doesn’t have a friend in the world (although we all know that’s crazy because Clay is just a little ball of friendship and love). Once again, these kinds of rapid transitions during such a developmental part of a young adult’s life can actually be mind altering. In fact, according to a study by Peter S. Bearman, PHD, and James Moody, PHD, “The friendship environment affects suicidality for both boys and girls. Female adolescents’ suicidal thoughts are significantly increased by social isolation and friendship patterns in which friends were  cruel to each other.”

During this period in time, it is obvious that Hannah just wants to talk with her mother and father but fears they won’t understand. With all of their financial issues, Hannah’s parents have a hard time not bickering and focusing on their daughter and her issues. Although blaming a parent for not knowing what is happening when their child says absolutely nothing is absurd, it is important for parents to know just how impactful a conversation with their children every now and again can be. This is why it is important to never lose contact with your child, even when life is stressful, and the show definitely does a good job of raising awareness of this throughout the entire series.

After trying to find normalcy in her chaotic life, Hannah heads to a party to meet Clay and winds up not only witnessing a rape, but also feeling as though she is complacent to some extent in the death of a fellow student. Feeling responsible and experiencing a death at all during your formative years can be extremely painful and traumatizing. In fact, according to a study on bereavement in childhood, there appears to be a link between childhood bereavement and vulnerability during adulthood to a variety of serious disorders, including neurosis, psychosis, physical illness, depression, suicidal tendencies, schizophrenia, and antisocial behavior.

In the end, Hannah is raped by Bryce in the jacuzzi, and it becomes one of the final straws that compel her to commit suicide, along with the seemingly careless behavior the school itself displayed in response. The truth is that rape is slowly becoming a bigger and bigger concern for high school students, and many school officials do very little to prevent these students from committing suicide after the fact. According to a 2014 report entitled Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative, “Despite the evidence that many deaths are preventable, suicide is too often a low priority for governments and policy-makers.” On top of this, roughly 44 percent of rape victims are under the age of 18 and about 33 percent of rape victims have suicidal thoughts.

Despite suicide being such a major issue in America, what these statistics often show is that it is commonly swept under the rug, and the topic is all too often avoided. 13 Reasons Why opens up the narrative and the debates that Americans need to have for the sake of their children. With more and more social media outlets exposing children to cyberbullying tactics, now is the time that this kind of a discussion should be had. Although, perhaps, instead of looking at how Hannah’s death may have seemed selfish to many and a glorification of this terrible yet common occurrence, we should turn our heads in a different direction and look at the people it left behind, and how it affected their lives and futures forever.

The Fiction: How Are People

Construing the Show’s Message?

After watching the series countless times, it is fairly obvious that the main character is actually not Hannah at all, but rather Clay and the other students she talked about throughout her tapes. Clay is ultimately left behind after Hannah’s death with emotions he does not understand and pain he simply can’t bear. For the other students, their lives and the pressure they feel at school and home are already weighing down on them, and these tapes making them feel responsible for her death only appear to make things worse.

Despite the fact that each of these individuals most certainly deserve to be blamed for their actions, there is one thing that viewers seem to be missing which is highly important. In the book, Jay Asher says, “No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people.” To many of the viewers that are upset about the show, they may perceive this statement to be selfish and yet another way Hannah is blaming others for her own decision to commit suicide, but, perhaps, this is actually a kind of metaphor for how suicide affects people. After all, after Hannah dies, not only does Alex shoot himself, Jessica resort to alcohol for pain she can not cope with, and Tyler prepare for a school shooting, but her own parents break down, and Clay is shattered. With this said, maybe the true message this show hopes to convey is actually how suicide solves nothing and only hurts even more people in the process.

When watching the show, it is hard not to be upset at all of these individuals for the way they treated Hannah, but many of these situation were simply misunderstandings, outlashes caused by problems at home, and things that were hidden solely due to fear for what would happen otherwise. There’s no excuse for some of these actions, but it’s pretty obvious that this show hopes to showcase multiple rough situations and the different ways they are handled. Justin handles his situation through anger, Alex handles his through manipulation, Courtney handles hers through betrayal, Zack handles his through passive aggression, Tyler handles his through revenge, Sheri handles hers through avoidance, and Clay handles his through depression and anxiety.

For Hannah, she handled her rough situation with suicide and, in doing so, she created a last straw for several other students, but the main thing to look at is not how selfish that may be or how this could influence children to kill themselves, but rather how what she did affected everyone around her, and how no resolution actually came from it. After all, it wouldn’t have been necessary for Hannah to commit suicide to get Bryce convicted, and the rest of the students were left at the end of the series with very little resolution to show for it.

Since the release date, many people have been stating that the show is dangerous and gives young adults the wrong idea. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, “The message of the series — intended or not — is that while justice may be elusive in life, it might be achieved in death.” However, with this new perspective in mind, it is clear that the message actually has very little to do with Hannah herself, but with the people she left behind and the lack of resolution it led to.

In fact, since its airing, there has been a 100 percent increase in the number of calls for help to Brazil’s suicide hotlines, and this has to do with the fact that once you raise suicide into the limelight, it does not make suicide okay. Rather, it simply makes these thoughts okay to talk about with others without feeling shut off like Hannah did from her parents and teachers at the school. With teen suicide being one of the top hidden epidemics in America, allowing these young individuals to feel comfortable talking about their pain and depression is vital. In a recent interview, Jay Asher even explained this himself by saying, “These things happen, and to give respect to the people they do happen to, it felt wrong to hold back. It needs to be uncomfortable to read or watch. If it’s not, and we pull away, it felt like the story would only contribute that problem of not truthfully tackling these things. We’re already good at avoiding uncomfortable subjects, and that needs to change.”

However, despite the controversy this show has opened up and the misconstrued opinions of what the actual message is, this topic is far from new and “glorifying” suicide may actually be prevalent in high schools across America and right under parent’s noses already.

The Past: Is this Really Such

a Novel Topic of Discussion?

With so much controversy circling the show about how it makes suicide seem easy and poetic, it’s important that we ask ourselves how this show is truly any different from one book that is a mandatory read in high schools across America. You probably remember reading a book by Sylvia Plath entitled The Bell Jar in either your junior or senior year of highschool. If not, here’s a basic synopsis: The book is the story of 19-year-old Esther Greenwood, the breakdown she experiences, and the beginnings of her recovery. In the book, Esther is clinically depressed and tries to commit suicide using pills as well as a second attempt in a bathtub slitting her wrists. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The book goes into much detail about exactly what suicide feels like, as well as what depression feels like, and the author herself actually committed suicide through gas from her stove at an early age as well. Despite this book being a highly depressing and detailed depiction of exactly what hopelessness is like, the book is still a required read for countless high schools across the nation. However, instead of trying to ban this book and the show and feeling as though your children aren’t safe from ‘suicide promoting’ media, perhaps this is an opportunity for students to discuss how they feel without blatantly bringing the subject of suicide up and running the risk of being ridiculed for having feelings.

By using the book, teachers are able to determine which students may feel this way and actually broach the subject without making students going through difficult times, or feel as though it is targeted specifically at them. Perhaps, this show can be utilized in the same way, by relating to the students just enough to make them feel comfortable to discuss their own lives with their peers. After all, we see Hannah in the show give out a desperate cry for acceptance through a note in her teacher’s complement bag. In the show, it is laughed off almost immediately — but what if educated and serious discussions could happen about suicide? Perhaps, these discussions could be exactly how to prevent more students from taking their lives every year simply due to feeling as though they are not heard.

In the end, no matter how you perceive the show, we have to remember that it is simply a book and a piece of film and nothing more. Therefore, by taking this piece of film and using it to raise awareness of the aftermath of suicide and how it truly is a “permanent solution to a temporary problem”, we can transform this controversial show into a useful tool, rather than vilifying it and sweeping the epidemic right in front of our eyes under the carpet once more.

Category: Featured, TV