On “13 Reasons Why” as a Sexual Assault and Suicide Attempt Survivor…and a Mental Health Advocate

The Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why” has garnered quite a bit of buzz and media attention since its debut just 20 days ago. I’d heard of the book (by the same name) upon which the series was based, but had never read it. Knowing the premise of the book, I went forward with a mindset of caution and curiosity. I did not allow myself to judge the show until completing all 13 episodes, but was anxious to see how it addressed such nuanced topics as mental illness and suicide.

For starters, I do not recommend watching the series if you are experiencing a period of depression or thoughts of suicide, and I advise approaching it with caution if you are triggered by themes of sexual violence and/or suicide. Even though I am no longer suicidal and am usually okay when talking about suicide and sexual assault, I found myself feeling emotionally drained over the four days that it took me to watch the series from start to finish. It was a lot.

As a survivor of sexual assault:

From the perspective of a sexual assault survivor, I was glad that the show addressed  rape, sexual assault, and sexual violence so thoroughly and demonstrated the adverse effects that have on victim/survivors’ mental health. It contained multiple scenes in which sexual violence was depicted in a very upfront, very real manner, which was both good and bad.

Often, it seems that movies and TV shows leave those events up to the imagination of the viewer or show them in a very stereotypical manner that reinforces commonly held misconceptions of what sexual violence does and doesn’t look like. It was nice to see characters who had experienced traumas similar to my own represented onscreen as complex people whose narratives branched outside of victimhood.

On the flip-side, the assault scenes were incredibly difficult to watch. I could have skipped through them had they become too much to handle, which was not the case, but they brought a lot of my personal assault experience to the surface. Hearing other characters’ reactions to the assaults also struck a chord because of their similarities to some of the responses I received years ago.

As someone who struggles with my mental health:

From the perspective of someone who has struggled a great deal with my mental health and once came dangerously close to dying by suicide, I appreciated some aspects of the storyline and wasn’t very fond of others.

“13 Reasons Why” did a great job of showing how seemingly unrelated incidents in a person’s life can accumulate and lead to distress and how it’s easy to overlook all of the stressors feeding into a person’s experience when we only see a fraction of what other people are dealing with in a given moment. However, in doing so, it also minimized the fact that emotional distress can result from a single incident or as a result of no clearly-defined occurrence.

The suicide scene was also tough to stomach. I read that they wanted to show the whole thing in a detailed and painful manner so viewers understood that suicide isn’t worth it, but I believe there are other ways to convey the same message. The scene definitely brought back feelings of sadness, regret, and shame that I experienced following my attempt – feelings that, for the most part, I’d been able to leave behind.

As a mental health advocate:

Firstly, the perspective of a general viewer, “13 Reasons why” was entertaining, intense, and made me want to watch more. The fact that there were only 13 episodes was also encouraging as I knew I would finish it in a reasonable amount of time…it actually incentivized me to watch it more quickly than I would most series on Netflix.

However, as a mental health advocate, I’m not too pleased with how the series handled such sensitive topics as suicide and mental illness. For one, mental illness itself was never discussed. At one point, Clay’s parents present him with a bottle of pills (presumably antidepressants) to help him out of his emotional slump, but there is no conversation about mental health, mental illness, or help-seeking. Some people do not realize strong the connection between mental health disorders and suicide with 90% of deaths by suicide being people with diagnosable mental illnesses. Failing to mention mental health explicitly was a missed opportunity for potentially life-saving education of the masses.

It also portrayed Hannah, the protagonist who ultimately dies by suicide, as dramatic, selfish, and out for revenge. The show itself is a drama, but it depicts Hannah’s cries for help more as attention-seeking behavior than actual indications of suicidal ideation. Perhaps the show was hoping to bring attention to the fact that help-seeking behavior is often minimized or mistaken for attention-seeking, but I felt that it was reinforcing the stereotype rather than challenging it.

Additionally, none of Hannah’s attempts to reach out prove successful. While there is a need for more understanding and education regarding response to help seeking, the total lack of support for Hannah may make some viewers hesitant to reach out for fear that no one will care enough to help.

Lastly, the suicide scene was graphic in manner that nearly every expert resource I’ve encountered for talking about suicide discourages. The general concept is to never show a suicide in detail and to refrain from talking about the means by which a person dies by suicide. “13 Reasons Why” captures Hannah acquiring the materials necessary to take her life, gearing up to do so, and ultimately escaping emotional pain through suicide. The series does not highlight alternatives, it does not talk about available resources, it does not show a person exhibiting proper crisis response behavior.

“13 Reasons Why” does not glorify suicide, per se, but it presents it as the only option in times of distress. It doesn’t show people how to ask for help or how to assist a friend. It sensualizes Hannah’s suicide. While the series does not necessarily portray suicide as fun or light, it fails to approach the topic through a prevention lens, thus skirting around mental illness, reinforcing suicide stereotypes, dramatizing suicidality, and ignoring a significant opportunity for prevention education at the viewers’ expense.

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