13 Reasons Why – A Clinical Perspective on the Graphic Depiction of Suicide
This is part one of a three-part series offering a clinical perspective on the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why (originally published on May 4, 2017).
Part 1: Graphic Depiction of Suicide
13 Reasons Why, a Netflix drama series based on the book of the same name by Jay Asher, continues to rise in popularity since its release at the end of March, particularly with teenage audiences. With a compelling storyline and a talented cast, it’s easy to see the attractions of the show. It’s also a controversial show, in that its focus is the gradual progression toward suicide of its main character, Hannah Baker.
People involved in making the show, such as executive producer Selena Gomez and writer/producer Brian Yorkey, who adapted the novel for Netflix, have spoken in interviews and on the follow-up Netflix program, 13 Reasons: Beyond the Reasons, about their goals and motivations in creating this series. They clearly care about teen suicide, as well as the other difficult topics addressed in the series, including substance abuse, rape, bullying, gun violence, and emotional isolation.
There’s a lot to admire about 13 Reasons Why, and the series potentially has important information to share with both adult and young adult audiences about the emotional and social challenges teenagers can face. Some young adults may find that the direct and honest portrayal of trauma and suicidality heightens their awareness and sensitivity to these issues in their own communities, possibly helping to reduce stigma and create more opportunities for discussions. At the very least, the success of this show has put teen suicide forward as a topic of conversation. According to the CDC, suicide is now the second most common cause of death among teens and young adults, accounting for nearly 6,000 deaths annually in individuals between the ages of 15 and 24. This is a problem that many parents and teachers don’t necessarily like to think affects the children they know, but parents, educators, and adults who spend time with children in general do need to be aware of the high risk of suicide in youth. Unfortunately, the positive attributes of this show listed above ultimately do not outweigh its risks to younger and more vulnerable viewers.
13 Reasons Why has a style reminiscent of teen classics like Heathers or The Breakfast Club. As the show has likable, attractive characters and an engaging take on teen loneliness, both parents and teens may feel comfortable beginning to watch the show without realizing how brutal it later becomes. 13 Reasons Why features graphic scenes of rape, and ultimately and most controversially an extremely explicit scene of Hannah’s suicide. The details of Hannah’s death by suicide were not included in the original book, and writers for the show reportedly felt very strongly about the importance of including the scene of her suicide “with as much detail and accuracy as possible”(Nic Sheff, Vanity Fair, April 19, 2017). While their goal was reportedly to try to dissuade others from considering suicide as an option, decades of research have clearly shown that exposure to specific suicide details and methods actually elevates the likelihood of an attempt in individuals who are in distress and thinking of suicide – and this is particularly the case in young adults. While young viewers of the show may identify with Hannah and her struggles with experiences of betrayal, shame, and isolation, the presentation of suicide as a foregone conclusion at the start of the series misses an important opportunity to educate viewers about alternative resources for help and support that are available.
An irony of the artistic choice to feature in painstaking detail Hannah’s experiences of trauma and eventual suicide is that the creators of the show appear to be repeating the same destructive practices that the show purports to highlight and criticize. A key dynamic that contributes to Hannah’s suicide, for example, is the relentless objectification of her body and use of her suffering for the amusement of her peers. The traumas that Hannah endures throughout the show, culminating with the painfully vivid depiction of her suicide, have been described by those in the suicide attempt survivor community as gratuitous, shining an uninterrupted spotlight on an event that may carry deep and painful personal resonance for those impacted by suicide. This scene is used for shock value and supposedly to make a point about the horror of suicide, but horror diminishes with exposure, and audiences should not have the opportunity to get comfortable with this kind of content or to view it as a source of entertainment. For many individuals who have a prior history of suicidal or self-harming behaviors or a history of trauma similar to what Hannah endures, viewing such scenes may be triggering and, at the very least, cause heightened distress and pain.
The level of explicit detail included in the suicide scene, as well as the presence of a storyline which appears to treat Hannah’s death by suicide as inevitable, has led to an outpouring of concern from the suicide research and prevention community, even prompting the Office of Film and Literature in New Zealand to create a new category of censorship due to fears that the series may create a contagion effect in the country’s already highly at-risk youth.