The Untold Story of 13 Reasons Why
Thirteen Reasons Later, and We Still Haven’t Talked About the True Issue
At the top of nearly everyone’s Netflix binge list right now is 13 Reasons Why, the tragic story of Hannah Baker, a high school girl that loses her life at the hands of suicide. This student leaves cassette tapes where she records herself talking about the people responsible for her suicide. Among the reasons are bullying, sexual assault, and a decimated reputation, all the reasons you would expect Hollywood to include to sell a guise of quasi-benevolence in the name of turning a profit.
While I know that there are people that have lived through similar circumstances that have applauded it, I will not join them, and neither will the half dozen other survivors I have recently conversed with about the show. I started this show with the intention of loving it, with the intention of sharing it with everyone I know and telling them to watch it and pay attention. After the first episode, it started to become clear that would not be something I could do. By the last episode, I was so disgusted that I felt the need to write this piece.
While the overarching theme of this show is to show some of the harmful effects of bullying, a theme that I deem as appropriate, there is a deeper, darker untold story to depression and suicide that was ignored. As someone that not only suffered from depression but stared suicide in the eyes until an act of saving grace restricted me from succumbing to the dark, I will give you what this shoddy series neglected to do, the real story of depression and the dark reality that is the loss of your life to a pain so unbearable it is inconceivable.
The show is plagued with constant blaming, yet the true culprit remained unnamed. Other students were blamed for bullying in the series of tapes that served as the basis for each episode. The parents filed a lawsuit that blamed bullying for their daughter’s death. Throughout the entire series, the viewer is led to the falsehood that bullying or the rape were to blame for the suicide. While bullying, and certainly an act of violence as gruesome as a rape, can do irreparable harm to someone, suicide is not a result of these instances. It is a result of mental illness, as I and any other survivor will tell you. Despite this, the words “mental illness” were not mentioned a single time in the course of the series. Completely neglected was the true root of suicide and practical steps that can be used to fight it. Instead, the show settled for the obvious Hollywood-esque storyline that they knew they could sell to a public eager for a good story. Some will contest that bullying can lead to this mental disease, and therefore 13 Reasons Why has a legitimate purpose. It is true bullying and similar events can lead to the onset of depression, but the reality is that we will never end bullying, nor will we be exempt from it. Everyone is bullied in life. Everyone has their reputation harmed by false accusations. Focusing on the idealistic goal of ending all bullying is getting in the way of the true discussions we need to be having with students about mental disease, depression, and suicide. While the two do not have to be mutually exclusive, they were for the producers of this show.
There was only one scene where depression was mentioned, and even then it was indirect. Hannah had left an anonymous letter for her teacher in which she asked, “What if the only way to end the pain is to end it all?” This was a brief and rare peer into what depression does to someone’s mind. Often people believe they understand depression because they have experienced a gloomy couple of days or week, but depression is so much more. For more than 18 months, I suffered from depression. Depression isn’t the feeling of not wanting to get out of bed in the morning; depression is getting up and going through everyday motions, putting on a face, and hiding the pain you are experiencing from everyone you love and care about. Depression isn’t deciding to stay home rather than attend a party; it is going to the party and doing all of the things you’re supposed to without feeling any joy, happiness, or satisfaction while watching everyone around you have the times of their lives. Depression isn’t gloom; it is despair. It’s a feeling you suffer through from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep, day after day, week after week. With only one or two exceptions, the show failed to shine a light on what depression is or how it feels, something that could have helped someone suffering identify what they were feeling and recognize the need to get help. Instead, the show taught that person how to assign blame and that there was only route forward. This was perhaps the most disgusting part of the show, as the producers, directors, and actors had a high platform from which to help, but neglected to do so.
Since my time suffering from depression, I have become an activist for the suicide prevention. I have written articles, spoken at several events, and am even working on a book about suicide prevention. Something people often notice when I speak about suicide is that I never say someone committed suicide. I never say someone took their life; I never say she killed herself. That isn’t by accident. What people do not understand, and what this show obviously didn’t understand, is that people do not kill themselves. You fall to suicide. The person that ends up at that point is not you, as anyone that has been there can attest. It isn’t a choice, as a choice is something a person consciously decides. No, suicide is anything but a choice. Nowhere in this show is that mentioned. Instead, the only two ways they speak about suicide is by saying there was nothing that could stop her or that the people mentioned in the tapes killed her. Neither is true and even though these are common thoughts, the show recklessly allowed those thoughts to go unchecked. Constantly through the show, characters say, “If just one of these things hadn’t happened, she would still be here.” Again, completely ignoring the aspect of mental disease, depression and recklessly allowing an entire public to believe a single moment of bullying is the defining factor.
13 Reasons Why cannot be the story we tell our children if we hope to make headway in suicide prevention and awareness. This cannot be the depiction of suicide that is allowed to fill the heads of the impressionable audience this show is aimed toward, and that is most disappointing of all due to the enormous platform that was given and balked on. The producers of this show had a chance to change the way we talk about suicide, instead, they allowed the same fallacies, such as the desire for attention, to prevail. They had a chance to shine a light on what depression is so that a young person suffering through it would be able to recognize what they are experiencing. Instead, they handed a glamorized, step-by-step guide down a one-way street. Had I seen this series in 2013, I cannot imagine the impact it would have had, but I fear it may be one that wouldn’t have allowed me to write this. They had a chance to depict steps that a school, a church, a community, or just a friend could take to fight against a mental disease that is the third-leading cause of death in people 15 to 24 and is continuing to rise. Instead, they didn’t really do anything except sell a good story that will turn a profit.