Photograph courtesy of Netflix
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The day I finally woke up not wanting to die after months of struggling with severe depression was the best day of my life. I’ve lived with anxiety and clinical depression since my early twenties, struggling through rough slumps every four months or so. It had always been manageable, since I was lucky enough to have access to doctors, medicine, and perhaps most importantly, family and friends to turn to. But that’s the thing about depression: It’s manageable until it’s not. This past winter, I suffered through my worst bout of depression ever, months filled with mornings when getting out of bed seemed impossible, days when I couldn’t function at work, and nights when sleep was as scary as the emotions tumbling around in my head.
When I first realized I wasn’t safe being by myself, I texted my mom that I needed her to fly up to New York from Florida. I wasn’t stable enough to explain why I couldn’t be alone, but I knew that at any moment I might harm myself without thinking anything through. My ability to think rationally was blocked by emotions that made no sense to me or anyone around me.
And thankfully, with my mom by my side every step of my recovery, I finally woke up one day and actually wanted to get up and be alive. And then I got better and better and better. Now, when I’m just feeling normal, I’m wary of it because I don’t trust that happiness will ever stay. But I let myself feel the happy, and the sad, and the frustrating, and all the confusing emotions we all have.
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Confusing emotions were exactly what I felt when I watched Netflix’s drama 13 Reasons Why, a series based on a book of the same name that follows high school students through the aftermath of a classmate’s suicide. The show has earned troves of accolades for shedding light on mental Health and suicide awareness for teens, but it’s also been shrouded in controversy since some medical professionals and mental health organizations find its raw depiction of suicide a dangerous choice that could lead others to take their own lives.
This phenomenon is often referred to as "suicide contagion," which is the theory that sharing graphic details of a suicide, whether it’s a fictional TV character like Hannah Baker or a beloved celebrity like Robin Williams, can cause “outbreaks” or “clusters” of suicides. Basically, the fear is that if we know exactly how someone else killed themselves, we might try it ourselves.
So it makes sense that a show about teen suicide would cause alarm, especially with suicide being the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the wake of the show’s popularity, mental health organizations and experts have voiced concern about the show, causing groups like The Suicide Awareness Voices of Education to issue talking points, along with the Jed Foundation, a suicide prevention group, to help viewers discuss the series.
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While the show does provide an extra 29-minute special called “Behind The Reasons” featuring cast members and mental health professionals discussing suicide, some say it’s far from enough. Mental health organizations in Australia, where the show’s lead actress Katherine Langford is from, are issuing warnings for the series, with Jaelea Skehan, director of the Hunter Institute of Mental Health, writing an essay about how the show sends the wrong message about suicide risk.
"The show almost sets a tone that with so many 'reasons,' that suicide was inevitable, which is not a helpful message to send," Skehan writes. "But it also does little to legitimize the feelings of others who can’t identify single instances or events that might give evidence to the way they are feeling. Young people need to understand that distress and psychological pain is legitimate and they are worthy of getting support whether there is one reason, 13 reasons or no obvious reasons at all."
13 Reasons Why contains multiple controversial scenes, including depictions of brutal abuse, horrifying sexual assaults, and its vivid suicide scene. I would argue that the show is as much about sexual assault as it is about suicide, so it’s surprising that that topic isn’t garnering as much controversy. Still, as someone who’s fought through my own suicidal thoughts, I can see why the suicide scene is so stirring.
We never see Hannah stop breathing, only that she has stopped at some point before her mother finds her dead. I recognized Hannah’s look of fear as she realizes she might not be able to actually kill herself, that she might not be able to relieve the mental pain of her feelings and frustrations and despair. But it was Hannah’s subsequent look of relief that stuck out to me the most. It seemed, to me, like she could feel that her efforts were working, that her life—and with it, her mental anguish—was almost over.
Watch one woman explain what it's really like to struggle with depression:
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Had I watched the show when I wanted to harm myself, I might have been more eager to do just that. For me, the real relief in watching this wasn’t seeing Hannah’s contentment at leaving the world, and potentially her emotions, behind. It was in knowing that this scene doesn’t look like relief to me anymore.
What the series also shows in great detail is how Hannah goes looking for help. The entire show is one scene after another reconfirming the point that she simply couldn’t find it.
It makes sense that some don’t pick up on how important the act of seeking out help is while watching 13 Reasons Why, that some might see Hannah’s final act of desperation as enticing. I know because I think I would have felt tempted watching that scene in the middle of the darkest days of my life. But, just like Hannah looked for ways out of the mental pain, I did, too. And I was lucky enough to get the help I needed.
I didn’t know exactly what I needed when I most needed help, and it took me about six weeks of suffering before a friend raised a red flag to me. All it took was for one person to notice and point out that there was something going on with me—something that could be scary. That’s the graphic detail we need to see, to learn more about, to cause uproar over. The fact that so few people know what to look for in friends and loved ones, what to say, and how to say it is the real tragedy here.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, here's how to find the help you need.