Reasons why you should proceed with caution

Two reactions to the Netflix series '13 Reasons Why'; firstly from Madeleine Pownall, and then Eirian Kerry.

13 Reasons Why is the new Netflix drama that is causing a stir on social media. The 13-part series, set in the melodrama and teenage angst of a suburban American High School, centres around 17-year-old Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). After killing herself, Hannah leaves behind 13 cassette tapes – one addressed to each of the school peers that she believes drove her to her death.

It’s a difficult watch. The series tackles some dark themes: bullying, harassment, rape, suicide. Some scenes – particularly two of sexual abuse, and the ultimate suicide of Hannah – could be considered unnecessarily gruesome. The explicit scenes are certainly out of step with the wholesome background of the school and the students; this is perhaps the point. The petty wrongdoings of Hannah’s peers succeed in lulling the viewers into a false sense of security (at one point Hannah cites her appearance on a ‘hot or not list’ as a reason for her suicide). Viewers are led to believe that hormone-fuelled relations between the students are the sole reason for the tragic outcome, so when we’re hit with a stomach-churningly graphic depiction of rape we can’t help but feel uneasy and entirely unprepared. Psychologically speaking, it’s tricky stuff.

13 Reasons Why has been praised for its brave portrayal of bullying, abuse and for demonstrating how small acts accumulate to become unbearable. However, there is a real sense of ‘Hollywood’ about this series that is inescapable. The music is all too dramatic, the scenes of characters crying last too long, characters throw the word ‘rape’ at each other like bullets. It is melodramatic and thus any sense of sincerity and real empathy is removed. There is nothing subtle about the story. It is entirely one-note, and by the 13th episode that note is difficult to hear.

Hannah’s narrative in the tapes is incriminating and condemning, with an ethos of ‘you did this to me’. This, unsurprisingly, leaves the 17-year-old listeners reeling with guilt and shame. One boy earns his place on a tape by standing Hannah up on Valentine’s Day. Perhaps the series is so concerned with getting the message of ‘be nice to people’ across, it forgets that it is aimed at teenagers. Unlike other programmes which discuss similarly distressing themes, 13 Reasons Why is aimed almost exclusively at the age-range of the characters it features. For this reason, psychologists have feared that it may produce copycats. The romantic and dramatic nature of suicide may indeed be portrayed as tempting, in the face of similar circumstances.

To add to the danger, thanks to the instantaneous nature of Netflix and the series’ prevailing suspense in every episode, it is the kind of show that lends itself to a binge-night of all 13 episodes. I would warn against this. One sitting would be almost psychologically unpalatable. It would leave the viewer feeling shell-shocked and fully immersed in the world of Hannah’s posthumous existence – but dangerously so. If you are reading this as an intrigued psychology professional, then do watch the series – but with plenty of caution. 

***

I watched this entire series in less than a week; needless to say I was hooked by the cast’s depiction of Jay Asher’s original novel.

In the series we listen to thirteen tapes, each given its own episode to tell a different story that led Hannah to the decision to end her life. We follow Clay (Hannah’s classmate) throughout the series, as he listens to the tapes, narrated by Hannah. We watch him uncover the truth behind his friend’s desperate choice. The actor’s depiction of Clay’s turmoil is excellent, and I could feel each emotion he portrayed. Justin, Alex and Jessica’s stories also moved me and the actor’s performances of these parts were equally captivating.

What this program did really well was to demonstrate the struggles of teen life. It took me back to my own dark times, of feeling lonely and misunderstood by everyone around me! It documents how a series of comments and events can be traumatic for a person, and can have devastating consequences to their well-being. Some blogs have commented on the lack of ‘mental illness’ being discussed in this series. I am pleased that Hannah hasn’t been labelled as ‘depressed’ or having a ‘diagnosis’.’ This series gives us more of an understanding of Hannah’s distress rather than relying on symptomology and a ‘cure’.

Hannah’s loneliness and emptiness in the final episode is palpable. A sense of anger than runs throughout this series. This comes not only from Hannah’s tapes but from the characters who have listened to her tapes, as well as Hannah’s parents, who are seeking answers. I think this was needed. I personally feel that this was a very honest depiction of someone in crisis.

Unfortunately, the production team felt it necessary to explicitly show the last moments of Hannah’s life. It is well documented that seeing self-harm/suicide in the media increases the likelihood of someone in distress of copying these acts. That being said, this particular scene was very graphic and difficult to watch, highlighting that suicide is not an easy option. It also shows the heart-wrenching moment that her parents find her body; again stressing the devastating effects that ending a life can have on those closest to the person.

This program reminded me of how difficult it is to be a teenager, how intense the feelings are at this age, and how hard it can be to see beyond these struggles. It is a stark reminder of how much goes unnoticed in schools and in the home environment, and it challenged me to keep connected with the teens in my own life. I hope it challenges its young audience to have a more open dialogue with the adults around them so that their emotions can be contained and better understood.

- Find out more, and find resources on suicide in our archive.  

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber