Is this really the kind of attention that suicide needs?

It was announced this week that Netflix's 13 Reasons Why isn’t finished with us yet, as it was just renewed for a second season. If you’ve missed the teenage buzz, 13 Reasons Why premiered March 31 and has become the most tweeted sensation Netflix has ever seen, garnering more than 3.5 million mentions its first week—with passionate response from fans and critics alike. 

Adapted from a YA novel Jay Asher wrote a decade ago, 13 Reasons Why tells the tragic story of Hannah Baker, a bullied 17-year-old who ultimately dies by suicide. She leaves behind thirteen cassette tapes to be given to those she blames for driving her to this end.

While suicide will always remain a controversial topic, 13 Reasons Why takes this painful matter to a new level. Typically, suicide is dealt with carefully in media, and for good reason. As ReportingonSuicide.org states: “Covering suicide carefully, even briefly, can change public misperceptions and correct myths, which can encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help.” 

It seems that the producers had good intentions to that end, but have ultimately missed the mark. "We wanted to make something that can hopefully help people,” shared Selena Gomez, the 24-year-old star who executive produced the series, during the Netflix special Beyond the Reasons that explains some of the decisions made for the show. “Because suicide should never ever be an option." While I agree with Gomez’s noble intentions, experts point to evidence that this show doesn’t just fall short, it also opens up a whole new dangerous territory.

Several weeks ago, Brooke Fox, LCSW, wrote a blog post on her practice’s website voicing her concern about the show—both as a psychotherapist and as a mother to two teenaged girls. Her post went viral, and while she garnered lots of glowing support, she also received a whole bunch of angered criticism from diehard fans of the show. She still stands by her beliefs that this show does more harm than good. I got to speak with her, and here’s what she says the main issues of the show boiled down to.

Maria Walley: You mention that 13 Reasons Why is a suicide revenge fantasy. Can you please explain why this is dangerous?

Brooke Fox: This is dangerous because adolescents will have these suicidal daydreams where they think to themselves, “You’ll be so sorry when I’m gone” or “I wonder what people will say about me . . .” The tricky part is that, in reality, Hannah wouldn’t see the answers to these questions. Yet in the series, she does see these reactions. It fulfills a fantasy. The series uses this suicide as something that Hannah achieved.

Omnipotence is one of the hallmarks of adolescence. [The show] normalizes an irrational act to an age group that is susceptible to fantasy and developmentally has difficulty grasping the finality of death. Further, the act of suicide is portrayed as her only logical choice when, in reality, this decision comes from the most irrational and diseased place. Hannah was using her suicide as validation.

MW: Executive producer Selena Gomez believes that the show does more good than harm, citing her own depression issues. Why do you disagree with her stance?

BF: I fundamentally disagree with this statement because there was no reference to Hannah’s struggle with mental health. There wasn’t a mention of depression, anxiety, or PTSD. This series could’ve shown the signs and symptoms of all of these mental health issues and watched Hannah’s intense struggle. People end their life because they suffer mental illness that may be a result of trauma—not because of the aggression of others. Depression and similar mental-health issues can be triggered by these traumas. I think teens and others would’ve benefitted greatly by having their own mental health issues mirrored to them and then seen Hannah heal. Instead the series failed to raise the issues of mental health awareness by not even mentioning mental health troubles.

MW: How do you think Hannah Baker should have been treated?

BF: I think this question is too difficult to answer in full. There are too many points of clinical material that weren’t revealed. The show made the terribly complicated issue of suicidality far too simplified—which was one of the largest problems with the series. If I were the school counselor, she would’ve been empowered to tell her parents and then the police. Let’s start there.

MW: So the suicide was unrealistic. But what parts were realistic? What was not?

BF: In terms of these aggressions, both macro and micro, that Hannah faces—that is true to life. The high school kids I work with face these issues every day. Unfortunately, with the advent of social media, these behaviors also become very widespread, very quickly. This, in turn, makes bullying have further reaching consequences. Statistics show us that sexual assault is on the rise as well—both at the high school level and the college level.

The bullying aspect of the series is spot-on.

MW: What was not realistic?

BF: Contrarily, how the school deals with her suicide was very unrealistic and goes against all best practices—there would be no shrine at the locker. The adults were very “John Hughes-esque” in the show in a situation that was not “John Hughes-esque.” While there are bad apples in our field, I have never experienced a situation that all adults are this checked out, including the professionals.

MW: You suggest that it's dangerous for teens to watch and that it "glamorizes suicide." Would you also maybe suggest that it could be dangerous for adults to watch as well?

BF: It’s dangerous for adults in a different way—the suicide and rape scene are jarring and can re-traumatize those who have experienced traumatic events and past suicidal ideations thus triggering negative and traumatic responses.

A Better Understanding of Suicide

The public safety website ReportingOnSuicide.org explains, “Suicide is a public health issue. Media and online coverage of suicide should be informed by using best practices. . . . The way media cover suicide can influence behavior negatively by contributing to contagion, or positively by encouraging help-seeking.” It offers eight guidelines. As Fox points out, 13 Reasons Why breaks every single one of them.

Here’s hoping the voices of mental health professionals such as Fox bring a perspective that helps us mature from simply bringing attention to a difficult topic to bringing the right kind of attention—and a greater understanding.

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