13 Reasons Why is a scary story for the mentally healthy
The show never addresses the elephant in the room: mental illness.
Warning: This post entails spoilers.
The most tweeted Netflix show within its first week of streaming isn’t the Orange is the new Black. It’s not the Gilmore Girls remake and not even Stranger Things — it’s Thirteen Reasons Why, the popular teenage series that dropped on March 31. This show is about Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who kills herself and leaves thirteen reasons (recorded in tapes) why. These reasons range from “simpler” things like rude behavior of other classmates to morally wrong and illegal actions like rape. The message is simple: little things you say to others matter and manifest themselves into the worst corners of mental illness. But is it?
There’s quite a bit that 13 Reasons Why does good. The color schemes for past and present helps the viewer keep track of the timeline. The soundtrack is wonderful and the dialogue feels natural most of the time. The show is a deconstruction of the saying “high school is the best time of your life”, because these kids aren’t having the best time of their life. They try to uphold a certain ideal, hide their mistakes and silence their guilt and moral conscious. It is the reason why critics hail 13RW as one of the best teen drama series, holding a ranking of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. But the show’s biggest trump card, mental illness, it is not good representation, and definitely not good storytelling.
A few of these issues have already been raised by other people, particularly regarding the suicide. One mental health group has raised concerns, and there have been an increased number of calls towards mental health hotlines. Yet, the writer of the show defends the choice of having a graphic scene of suicide with the intent “ to make viewers face the reality of what happens”. The reality didn’t have to be told by a triggering scene . Certainly not for already mentally ill people, many of which are already battling with suicidal thoughts.
And this is where one thing becomes painfully clear: this show has neurotypical, mentally healthy teenagers and adults as audience. It is not designed to represent, or in some way accurately show, people with mental illnesses. For 13RW, mental illness is a shock factor. This goes far beyond Hannah’s suicide scene. It’s scattered everywhere in the plot: from the way the characters treat and talk about Hannah, the circumstances that led Hannah to her death, to the roles of the adults in the show.
It starts with the most obvious: the words “mental health”, “mentally ill” or any mental illness is never mentioned in the series. The only time it is brought up is when Tony talks about being in the right “headspace”. Psychiatrists and talk therapy are only mentioned in passing, and even that is immediately disregarded. None of them sit down and address the elephant in the room — that Hannah, or any of these characters, may be mentally ill . At some point it becomes downright ridiculous. Clay, becoming increasingly nervous and anxious, keeps seeing hallucinations of Hannah as the series progresses. He also shows signs of depression and tries to kill himself, too. The plot alludes that he has dealt with mental health issues before and that he took medications, but never mentions what he has suffered from. What’s worse: in the last two episodes, he doesn’t have any mental health problems anymore, like mental health is a convenient plot device.
None of the other characters, sans three, ever seem to have a mental health problem, either. They are not at all affected by Hannah’s suicide. Instead, they happily keep plotting how to shush the reasons for Hannah’s death, as though they’re members of a mafia. Hannah is described as “needy” and “emotionally unstable”; none of the characters suggest at any point that she may be mentally ill at all.
Even Hannah herself, until the last three episodes, shows no sign of deteriorating mental health in her tapes and voice-overs. For a show that drags so much out in thirteen episodes, for some reason, Hannah’s mental illness doesn’t get the pace it deserves. In the penultimate episode, she mentions about how she feels like she lets everyone down. But the show has until that point only alluded to how people let her down constantly. The more authentic line of thinking would be something like: “people let me down and I deserve to have that and maybe I’m so shitty that I, too, let people down”. It’s still faulty thinking objectively speaking, but for someone with bad mental health, it makes perfect sense.
The last point regarding the teenage characters is the self-harm idealization. One of the characters harms herself, and later reasons it as “what kids do instead of suicide,” further arguing that suicide is a “dumb” choice to make. Although there is a link between self-harming and suicide, it is by no means the “better” option to suicide.
And then there are the adults, particularly the counselor, all of which are useless. I understand that often, parents won’t notice and/or understand. But for a counselor to dismiss rape with a “you gotta move on” doesn’t feel right at all. The character later understands that, but justifies it with a “I couldn’t have known”, except it’s his job to notice warning signs.
In total, I’m let down by 13 Reasons Why. It’s not at all different from teenage dramas and movies that have a mentally ill character but is only a dramatic point in the plot. If a second season gets ordered by Netflix, I hope the problems regarding mental health are addressed properly. Because when we have to talk about suicide more as a society, we have to start with mental health.