13 Reasons Why… does it glorify suicide or start a much needed conversation

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Much has been said since the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why aired. For those who have missed it this series follows the story of Hannah, a girl in an American High School, who has died by suicide and left tapes behind detailing her reasons. Each ‘reason’ focuses on a different student and how they contributed to her decision.

Much of what I have read recently has focussed on whether this series will be a trigger to vulnerable young adults or is essential as part of the conversation on mental health and the tragedy of suicide.

Firstly, I thought it was an excellent piece of television, it showed some real depth to some of the characters and you really cared about how it developed. This is not just a story about one girls suicide but a story of the pain of many different kids in school – without becoming a typical American high school drama kind of show.

Due to the topic and the way it was filmed it was never an easy watch – I don’t mean in terms of the two rape scenes or the suicide scene which are obviously hard to watch, I mean in terms of the emotional depths that are shown. It was easy to empathise with characters, whether you agreed with them or the way they behaved. Whether you agree with all of conclusions of Hannahs, or her way of revealing her suffering in terms of the ‘revenge tapes’ you can’t help but feel deeply for her. This and the pain, exclusion, awkwardness etc of other characters made it uneasy to watch at times.

The suicide scene in the bathtub was unquestionably hard hitting and emotional and to many is the concerning scene in terms of being a trigger. The camera does not shy away from anything, from the last actions prior to getting into the bath tub, cutting deep into both wrists, the close up of the face as life drains from her. My wife was unable to watch, where as I could barely take my eyes off it – and here in lies the underlying issue with the scene and the entire show. Everyone will react differently. Some will be horrified by it, some will be hugely emotional, some will feel slightly sick, some will not be able to look and some will cry. Unfortunately though, some will feel a painful empathy, some will feel nothing, some will feel a twinge of jealousy. I will confess, despite not being suicidal, as the camera held on the close up of her face, as she died I was taken by the look of peace. A peace so many people crave, the voice in my head as I watched said ‘sweet relief’. However science tells us that it wasn’t due to relief or peace in her soul but just how the body reacts in such a situation – in short a physical not emotional reaction to her blood flowing out of her body. However the emotional reaction of the viewer will be there and could that trigger someone? Potentially yes. On the flip side it is also possible that someone watching who was considering suicide may be horrified by the reality and think twice.

In the first couple of episodes (and in truth, throughout) there was another potential trigger that could hit someone. The series is set up to say, look at the pain your death could cause, look at how people will actually miss you, you mean more to people than you think. This is true and a good message that can help vulnerable people. On the flip side it can also tap into the ‘once I’m gone they’ll be sorry’ mind set that can be so common, particularly in teenagers. Whilst I wouldn’t class myself as suicidal as a teenager, I regularly had similar thoughts – ‘if I was dead they would notice me’ ‘if I was gone they would be sorry’ etc. In many ways the show plays alone those lines and getting revenge on those who have wronged you.

Everyone who reaches suicidal thoughts, ideation up to attempting suicide has their own, very unique experience. Some people may be able to relate very closely to Hannahs story, others who reach a similar point, may not. Which brings us to another dilemma with a show like this in terms of being triggering. The issue being that they do get it right in many ways. If things were highly unrealistic, if things were not relatable, any risk of triggering would be greatly reduced. So does that mean we shouldn’t tackle such issues?

I am a great believer in talking more, opening up and confronting such issues. Brushing them under the carpet serves no positive purpose. Lack of talking about such serious issues, I am convinced, has contributed to many a suicide. If it is a taboo subject that we can’t see, can’t understand we enter a downward spiral that can be incredibly difficult to recover from.

By talking about it we risk presenting triggers to vulnerable people but we also stand a very real chance of lessening the isolation they may be feeling, they may begin to feel better understood, or capable of reaching out to someone or of confronting their issues in a healthier way than suicide. If we make shows like this but do it badly we create more misconceptions in peoples minds which leads to more stigma so if we do it we should do it properly, and to me this was.

So to answer the question in the title, yes to some it will glorify suicide and act as a potential trigger but the conversation that it creates and tackles head on is vital and will play its part in saving lives. Educating our children on mental health issues, giving them training on accessing their emotions and how to handle them etc should be mandatory to begin to stem the tragically high numbers of kids suffering, self harming and taking their lives.

An important issue both my conclusion and the show raise is the relationship between teenager and parent, or teenager and authority figure. With Clay you have a sensible, mature for his age boy with loving, caring parents encouraging him to open up and yet he still is unable to. This is the nature of being a teenager, all too often an inability to access your feelings in a healthy and constructive way even in a safe environment surrounded by love. Couple this with the issue of cyber bullying which parents will not be able to fully understand due to it not being an issue when they grew up.

Raising a teenager has never been advertised as easy but doing all we can to understand and be there for our children is an absolute must. Being open to the idea of mental health issues with your child is vital but even with all the best intentions in the world parents can miss things – and you should not blame yourself if you do, though I realise that advice is near impossible to follow. But if your child is willing to open up, being there for them in that moment must become your only priority in life.

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