I am Clay—a survivor of suicide loss. And I have a problem with “13 Reasons Why.”
Trigger warning: suicide & depression
I’m a survivor of suicide loss, and “13 Reasons Why” goes against everything I’ve had to face.
Not only does the TV show portray suicide as a form of glorified revenge, but it also graphically depicts the act of suicide, even when decades of research have shown that “[r]isk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death,” as written in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s recommendations for reporting on suicide.
The problem is that “13 Reasons Why” never explicitly addresses suicide as a mental illness issue. And while bullying and harassment can certainly increase the likelihood of a person developing a mental illness, suicide is a result of mental illness itself and only in rare cases occurs due to an event. “We ” didn’t kill Hannah Baker. Mental illness did.
When my school district lost three students to suicide in my junior year of high school, so much of our automatic reaction was to try and find the “root cause.” Was it because he recently went through a rocky relationship? Was it because of stress and excessive pressure from parents? Was it because he wasn’t doing as well in his classes? Was it because someone had been spreading rumors about him?
We wanted to point to one concrete thing and say, “That killed him,” but we had to accept that suicide is so much more complex than it’s often perceived to be.
The Palo Alto suicides
I lost my classmate on a Tuesday in November. November 4, 2014, to be exact.
I remember walking into my first class of the day — French. We watched the video announcements, oblivious and still groggy, and then my teacher stood up and moved to the front of the class.
She raised a piece of paper and, sounding constricted, began to read from it.
“Early this morning, a junior from Gunn lost his life to suicide.”
My breath hitched, and everything in the room stilled. An agitated energy filled the space between the 20 of us. It was common knowledge that Gunn High School had lost five students to suicide in 2009, but none of us had felt its impacts or really believed that it could happen again.
It didn’t feel real at first. Stonily, I sat unmoving as breathless gasps escaped my classmates’ mouths. A friend tore from her chair, tears streaming, and fled the room. Another began to tremble lightly, the quaver shaking wider and wider until he too left the room sobbing.
Through all this, I remained in my seat. I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling. He had been a childhood friend — a great jokester and source of laughter; we’d played basketball together all the time in middle school. Guilt permeated the despair — did I even have a right to feel loss and pain when we hadn’t really been close? And if we had been, would things have turned out differently?
This is what “13 Reasons Why” seems to say: that if I had been kinder to him, if I had reached out more, noticed more, I might’ve been able to save his life. And while the message of kindness, compassion, and true, human connection is important and something I couldn’t agree with more, by refusing to frame suicide as an innate issue of mental illness, the show places the burden of suicide prevention on those left behind — on Clay, on my peers, on me — when suicide prevention needs to involve therapy, psychiatric examinations, and specific supports for mental health. But, like Clay, I believed that it was in part my fault, and amidst this cloud of self-accusation and self-criticism, I too began to develop symptoms of depression.
Now, I want to be clear. My classmate’s death did not cause my depression. Nor did it trigger mental illness on its own. Unlike the show’s portrayal of Hannah, which insinuates that a string of events rather than mental illness leads to suicide, my mental illness was a product of family genetics, neurophysiological changes, feelings of insecurity, childhood traumas, intense academic competition, increasing family tensions, and so much more I probably wouldn’t even be able to name it all. But because I had been exposed to a peer’s suicide and now had ready access to a means of suicide, my thoughts spiraled more and more in that direction until I knew I needed to see a doctor.
It’s true that some counselors will react like Mr. Porter did. By failing, however, to represent therapists, psychiatrists, and medication as alternatives to Mr. Porter, the show perpetuates the narrative that all counselors are like Mr. Porter and that it isn’t worth even attempting to seek help from professionals.
But mental health is just like physical health — if I broke a bone, would I hide it and pretend I hadn’t injured myself? No, I would visit a hospital.
And so I did.
My own struggle and recovery
I was diagnosed with depression my senior year. Though I had the option of psychiatric medication, my doctor asked me to try therapy for a month to see if my condition could improve without medicine. And though I was at first apprehensive about talking to a stranger, soon I found myself opening up as my therapist offered a nonjudgmental space for processing my feelings. Two things became clear: 1) I harbored an immense amount of guilt for my classmate’s passing, believing that I should’ve and could’ve been more intentional and attentive in our friendship, and 2) I was caught in a cycle of extreme self-hatred.
I hated everything about myself — my legs, my “Asian eyes” (which is not a real thing by the way; you can’t generalize small eyes to an entire population of extraordinarily different people), my social awkwardness, my difficulties with STEM, my inability to control my eating habits, my lack of self-discipline, all of these things I hated and would beat myself up for every hour every day. And as I blamed myself more and more for my classmate’s death, self-loathing began to feed into feelings of worthlessness.
My therapist, however, taught me to recognize the ways in which my mind participated in cognitive distortion, capitalizing on all the negative details and filtering out the positive. As part of my treatment, she asked me to write down three things I liked about myself at the start of every day. And though these things in the beginning consisted of “I like that I can recognize my problems” and “I like that I can be critical of myself,” soon I was training my mind to be more aware of my positive characteristics so that I would be able to write them down for the next morning. In this way, I began reorienting my headspace, giving myself grace and remembering that I’m not all bad, that self-love is possible, and that I am not at fault for my classmate’s death.
If I had been closer with him, if I had known his suicidal thoughts, if I had directed him to mental health services, then maybe I could’ve made a difference. But, I came to realize, you cannot save someone simply by saying you love them — I alone would not have been able to change the root of his mental illness.
Obviously, not every experience with mental illness is the same, but through therapy and more intentional steps in mental health care, I was able to make strides of progress and recover from depression in two years.
The reality of my classmate’s death and its implications for my community came later.
Cultivating resilience in the community
In the immediate aftermath, we too wanted to remember him. Chalk art was created all over the campus in memoriam, and students including myself wrote posts on social media.
But then the second student died next January, and then another in March, and we heard mental health experts telling us that memorialization and media sensationalism can increase the chances of copycat suicides. To people who are not struggling with mental illness that might seem strange. Why would seeing the ways people miss a victim of suicide make a person want to attempt it themselves? But mental illness can produce vastly unrealistic and irrational thoughts, and I began to witness it firsthand after I was diagnosed. In my depression, hurting myself became a temptation — if I could receive that kind of attention and love on top of putting a stop to these thoughts and feelings of self-worthlessness, then why not? It seemed so black and white.
My community seemed to agree. Our number of involuntary psychiatric holds spiked dangerously after the suicides. And as junior year continued, my class grappled with the consequences. It was suddenly very real to us, death, and we were completely unexpected to deal with its aftermath. An unanswered text became a cause for panic, and an ambiguous social media status about loneliness became a trigger for phone calls. Conversations weren’t just conversations anymore. “How are you?” became an authentic question, not just a matter of politeness.
For the first time in our lives, mental health became a regular topic of conversation. Our school district hired mental health coordinators for its two high schools and increased efforts to heighten the visibility of mental health resources such as Adolescent Counseling Services, suicide hotlines, and local psychiatrists. Teachers wrote crisis numbers on their whiteboards and encouraged students to reach out to them if thoughts of self-harm surfaced. And my class began to deconstruct the stigma around mental health, openly sharing experiences of suicidal ideation and supporting one another in seeking professional help.
Research by Columbia University psychiatrist Dr. Madelyn Gould has shown that when the media highlights coping strategies, emphasizes seeking help for mental health issues, and spreads narratives of survival of and recovery from mental illness or traumatic events, chances of suicide clusters decrease. And our community found ways to do so as we came to terms with the complicated nature of suicide and mental health.
A group of students produced a documentary titled “Unmasked” that examined mental health in our community through interviews with students, teachers, parents of suicide victims, and experts. A Student Wellness Committee was created at my high school. Local youth groups held community forums as a space for safe, honest conversation about emotional vulnerabilities. My high school paper, in an initiative I led as editor-in-chief, developed a personal column named “Changing the Narrative” that focused on spreading stories of recovery from obstacles like mental illness, unattainable standards of perfection, sexual abuse, and more.
And this is what “13 Reasons Why” avoids. It avoids a story of recovery and resilience, instead glorifying suicide as the only option amidst incredible trauma. It justifies Hannah’s suicide by placing blame on the people who ignored, mistreated, harassed, and bullied her. And while these kinds of behavior are completely unacceptable and hurtful, what happens in real life when someone who is left behind is forced to bear the pain and begins to succumb to suicidal ideation themselves? Are we so vindictive that we refuse to give people a chance for redemption and instead condemn them to cycles of shame and accusation that then increase the chances of their suicide?
In media, “several story characteristics, including front-page placement, headlines containing the word suicide or a description of the method used, and detailed descriptions of the suicidal individual and act, appeared more often in stories published after the index cluster suicides than after non-cluster suicides,” Gould found in a 2014 study, which used content analysis to compare media’s effect in communities with suicide clusters of young people aged 13–20 to that in communities with suicides of similarly-aged youth but no clusters. “Ecological evidence also suggests that exposure of the general population to suicide through television may increase the risk of suicide for certain susceptible individuals,” according to the CDC.
It’s a relief that we’re finally having nationwide conversations about mental health and suicide, but the creative decisions in “13 Reasons Why” do not take into consideration the effects of media attention that capitalizes on the act of suicide. The writers of the series argue that they wanted to portray suicide as “messy, ugly and it’s incredibly painful,” but people who are in a place of unstable mental health will not necessarily perceive it that way. Being exposed to the details of a suicide, the specific steps and tools involved, often only gives people — and particularly adolescents — who have had suicidal thoughts a more concrete idea for carrying out the act. Artistic license is great, but with an issue as nuanced and consequential as suicide, artists have a duty to craft narratives that responsibly address mental health.
If I had watched the series during my junior year, I would not have found the death scene painful or ugly. I would’ve been fascinated with the way she died. I would’ve imagined what it would feel like to copy the steps of her suicide. I would’ve fantasized about my family members finding me dead and my community memorializing me in some dramatic way.
That’s why it’s dangerous. What’s considered painful and ugly to one person might not to another. You can’t expect someone who’s struggling with mental illness to interact with the world in the same way as does a person who isn’t. Instead of trying to portray suicide as ugly, the effect of which will vary from person to person, we need to focus on explicitly addressing mental illness and spreading narratives of survival and recovery.
Please, Netflix, reconsider. Cancel the second season of “13 Reasons Why.”
Help is available
You are not alone. If you feel depressed, troubled, or suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255.
Additional crisis counselors can be reached by calling 1–800–784–2433 or texting 741741.
Links to more resources are posted at tinyurl.com/helpincrisis.