Image source: Netflix

Why ‘13 Reasons Why’ Made Me Furious and why I think you should be talking about it

This weekend I watched the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and felt a responsibility, as a mental health advocate, to share my opinion of this highly controversial show that has gone viral since its release on March 31st. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. This is mine. Please don’t bother to comment unless you’ve watched, researched, or have something thoughtful and respectful to contribute.

13 Reasons Why is not a show everyone should or will want to watch, but it is a show that we need to be talking about. It is the story of Hannah Baker, a high school student who takes her own life after a series of unfortunate decisions, then leaves behind thirteen audio cassette tapes in lieu of a suicide note to explain her reasons.

The show grips you from the first episode with its dynamic, quirky, kid-next-door characters who we all can relate to when we think back to our high school days. You get to know them quickly, and easily fall in love with the lead role, Hannah, whose voice narrates from beyond the grave. She promises to answer the questions left behind in the aftermath of her death. Each tape (episode) indicates how each of her “friends” had some type of role in her suicide.

I don’t usually watch much tv, ask my husband or any of my close friends. But once I started 13 Reasons Why I couldn’t stop. I felt annoyed at Hollywood for sucking me into a show that on the surface seemed to be glamorizing and romanticizing suicide. I became increasingly livid as the episodes became more and more graphic and raw, with no mention anywhere (that I could find) about resources for kids watching who may not have a supportive home environment. I don’t understand why the show’s creators (or the author who wrote the original young adult novel in 2007 this show is based on) could make such an intense show that kids across our nation, and likely in other countries, are probably watching at this exact moment. I didn’t realize until I reached the final episode and had a little time to process.

I’m still reeling from it. Seething. These are the only two words that come close to describe how I’m feeling.

I’m thirty-eight years old and have lived with Type 1 bipolar disorder for eleven years. I went through a horrific year of depression and anxiety that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I’ve learned to manage my illness through years of treatment, medication (which I still take religiously to this day), an incredible support system and self-care. I do my best to stay on top of a healthy sleep schedule. But this show hit a nerve so deep that I put myself at risk. I’m still putting myself at risk typing this draft at 11:30pm when I should be catching up on the sleep I’ve lost over this show.

{Edited to add: I had a lot of trouble sleeping last night. When was the last time a show kept you up at night?}

As I was watching the show there were so many moments I wanted to scream at the screen, as if I could somehow get them to rewind, and save her. Couldn’t something so wildly popular have taken a little more time to show what could have been if things were done differently? Imagine how this show might affect a teenager or young person who doesn’t have as much experience with living with a mental illness? Or a teen who doesn’t even realize that he’s in the midst of a mental health issue emerging right now? And it wasn’t only mental illness that was depicted in the intertwined stories of teenage drama. Rape, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, bullying, discrimination over sexual orientation. The show didn’t seem to be afraid to cover all the bases, issues that our world deals with on a daily basis. My hope is that young people who watch this will not be afraid to seek professional help or reach out to a trusted adult or friend if they feel vulnerable. My fear is they’ll isolate instead, or seek support in each other, as the kids in the story did.

Which is why I wonder if the Producers of 13 Reasons Why ever thought about the responsibility of telling a story this way? Did they ever think about what happens when young people who felt like they’ve been punched in the gut so hard from watching a show they can’t breathe or sleep need help? Or was their goal to open the eyes of every person — not just the young adult audience — who hasn’t yet been touched by these heavy issues we will all likely face in one way or another? With one in four Americans affected by mental illness in their lifetime, the odds are undeniable that we all know someone who has been directly or indirectly affected by mental illness and/or drug addiction, both of which tend to go hand in hand.

This show, like any form of art, was meant to take the viewer on a journey. It may not be one you want to go on, but life isn’t always a walk in the park. The experiences of our lives are what make us who we are. The good, the bad, the ugly, the unthinkable. Mine is vastly different than yours. What brings us together are our stories. We can begin to understand, only if just a little, the thoughts, emotions and pain our fellow humans go through when we care enough to listen and be present. Hold space.

13 Reasons Why may be a work of fiction, but the hard to swallow reality is that similar stories are playing out in real life in high schools and colleges across our country at this very moment. And it’s not just our young people. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US for all ages. In the US, a person dies by suicide every 13 minutes. The episodes in 13 Reasons Why totaled 716 minutes in length, which meant 55 individuals lost their lives during the time it takes to watch the series. That’s quite a shocking fact. But think about how many families and friends are torn apart by those statistics.

I never imagined when my Co-Founder and I started This Is My Brave that it would become what it has grown into today. The vision of This Is My Brave is simple, and with every event we put on, with every individual who makes the choice to stand up on that stage and be brave with us, we grow and come closer to seeing our vision become reality. That one day we’ll live in a world where we don’t have to call it brave for talking about mental illness. We’ll simply call it talking. Our organization’s motto is: #StorytellingSavesLives and I truly believe that it does. Especially when there are support systems in place to catch us when these issues emerge in life.

Until then, if you are a parent of a teenager or young adult, I strongly encourage you to at least research 13 Reasons Why, regardless of whether or not you choose to take the 13 hours to view it. Chances are your child may have already been exposed. It’s a personal decision on whether or not you watch, but I urge you to talk to your kids about it. 13 Reasons Why, while it didn’t explicitly talk about the mental illness the characters were so obviously struggling with during the course of the story, achieved something that This Is My Brave has been steadily worked to address ever since we were successfully funded on Kickstarter in 2013. It started a conversation. Now it’s up to us to look each other in the eyes and talk about the hard stuff, help each other find support, and address these issues.

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If you, or someone you know is in immediate danger of harming themselves or others, please call 911.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273-TALK (8255).

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE, online.rainn.org y rainn.org/es)

The Crisis Text Line can be accessed by texting BRAVE to 741–741, or visit our Resources page for more mental health support organizations.

A useful viewing/discussion resource for parents and teens, created by the JED Foundation and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education: https://www.jedfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/13RW-Talking-Points-JED-SAVE-Netflix.pdf

About the Author: Jennifer Marshall is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of This Is My Brave, Inc., a leading platform for individuals to share their story of overcoming mental illness through creative expression. Her blog, BipolarMomLife.com, has been named Healthline Bipolar Blog of the year for four years in a row (2014–2017). Her story has been featured on the front page of the Washington Post, in O, The Oprah Magazine, and in BP Hope magazine. In October of 2016, Jennifer gave a TEDx talk entitled “Mental Illness: Being Brave Saves Lives.”