Upon recommendation from a number of people, I eventually got to watch the much talked about Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. My apologies for being a little late to this discussion, but as a father of 3 small children, finding time to binge-watch a Netflix series over a day or two is not within my current capabilities. As it turns out, in the case of this series I think that this was a blessing in disguise, as this series was hard work, and I was glad to have the space between the episodes to digest and reflect upon the content, characters and the messages inherent in the storylines.
13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, who is a young woman who has taken her own life. The 13 episodes consist of Hannah’s narration of 13 cassette tapes which are an account of the circumstances leading up to her suicide and she also details the relationships she had with certain individuals who she felt contributed to her suicide. The narration is carried out in a way that allows Hannah to vengefully address the 13 identified perpetrators collectively and individually.
Firstly it is important to say that this series is very cosmetically appealing and makes for compelling viewing. However, my interest in this series was not from the perspective of a movie/ media critic, but rather as a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist. The series attempts to accurately depict the struggles of contemporary teenage life and in parts it does this very well, but in other aspects, not so much. My guess is that the characters in this series are not that relatable to Irish teenagers, as most of them look like they are in their mid-twenties, appear to have unlimited parental freedom, drive vintage cars, have an in-ordinate amount of gaff parties and disposable income that does not seem on a par with most Irish teens. However, I would suggest that many of the circumstances and struggles that are depicted for the characters in the series, are unfortunately all too relatable for many young Irish viewers.
The intense schoolyard politics which involve complex memberships of cliques and ‘in groups’ and the vicious and cruel ways in which these groups orchestrate exclusion and mistreatment of others is certainly a relatable reality for some young people today. As is the extensive drinking culture, the devastating effects of social media shaming, the distorted views of sexual intimacy, consent and the overall pressure to be perfect.
The series highlights many of these contemporary struggles in an unflinching way which achieves a poignancy and relatability that other shows have been unable to effect. However, as is often the case, the cost of poignancy is that it is disturbing. 13 Reasons Why attempts to depict the unimaginable experiences of sexual assault and suicide in very graphic and disturbing ways. This is both the strength and the risk of the production. If these horrific experiences were conveyed in a bland and cosseted way, the series would not have achieved the international reach that it has, however the manner in which they are portrayed is at times quite graphic. This may not be a bad thing, because unfortunately many aspects of contemporary life for some young people are disturbing and perhaps this series reflects that reality.
Many young people who are the victims of severe bullying, sexual assault or exclusion, tell stories that often make me, as a trained and experienced professional, feel perturbed, upset, traumatised and angry, and at times I can be left with feelings of despair regarding the nature of human cruelty. But this is my job and something that I continually have to learn to negotiate and manage. Thankfully I have many systems of support in place in order for me to be able to do my job and survive the multiple stories of young people who I am trying to help. Which raises the question about whether as a mainstream public we need to know the graphic details of contemporary trauma?
I am ambivalent when it comes to the mainstreaming expression of these stories. Part of me welcomes the conversation around these topics but another part of me wants to spare people the gruesome nature of human trauma. However, as I said, when these serious topics are dealt with in a bland and non-relatable manner, like a glossy leaflet in a GP’s surgery, one must ask whether this has any real world effect? It appears that in order to achieve resonance, stories need to be told in an unflinching way which serves to achieve poignancy, which in turn achieves the reach and interest that is desired. However stories told in this way also have the potential to be disturbing and upsetting to the viewer and so it comes down to conducting a cost/benefit analysis when it comes to deciding a story’s usefulness.
This concept is not new. The tactic of portraying the gruesomeness of an experience to achieve resonance is evident in many of the road safety campaigns. Here these adverts are deliberately graphic for the purposes of achieving resonance and are designed with the intention of impacting on the viewer’s real life behaviour. These adverts, which depict graphic scenes such as, an unbelted car passenger cracking their heads off a fellow passenger in a collision, serve the purpose of achieving resonance. The purpose of the graphic detail is to capture the attention of the viewer and in turn convince them to wear a seatbelt in future. These intentionally graphic images and stories are designed to traumatise the viewer to encourage them to act responsibly and this is, in my opinion, where 13 Reasons Why falls down.
The graphic nature of the content in 13 Reasons Why sufficiently traumatises the viewer to achieve resonance, but the helpful ‘take home message’ is confusing if even present at all.
The moral of the series appears to be that Hannah Baker was the victim of a series of circumstances that cumulatively broke her spirit, soul and her will to live. The message expressed by the other main character ‘Clay Jenson’, is that something could have been done to prevent Hannah from taking her own life. The series suggests that Hannah’s experience of cruelty by her classmates and the lack of someone reaching out to help her, caused her to take her own life. So, the moral take home message is essentially that viewers need to be nicer to each other and reach out to people who might be struggling. Many fans of 13 Reasons 13 Reasons Why to Twitter and other social media platforms to suggest that the series has successfully sent out this positive message. However, the flip side to this is the take home message that suicide is an effective way of enacting vengeance which can make others change their behaviour and pay for the damage they have caused. This is where the poignancy of the series becomes misguided.
I appreciate that the main character of Hannah had to die in this series in order for it to achieve resonance, and I understand that a ‘happy ending’ would have been counter-productive to the show’s purpose. However, the depiction of Hannah throughout the series almost suggests that she was able to witness the impact of her vengeance, which I think is a misleading fantasy. The show does attempt to illustrate the trail of devastation that is left behind after someone takes their own life, but perhaps it also suggests that suicide can prove a point too?
The fantasy of suicide being an act of vengeance is not unusual. I can remember at points in my own teenage years when I would have had arguments with my parents, (over something common like an agreed curfew time), and felt utterly unfairly treated. In these instances, I distinctly remember going to my room and fantasising about how if I were dead I could affect vengeance on my parents. Many of us, during times of upset, contemplate how bad those with whom we are angry with, would feel if we were dead. This can sometimes be fantasised in the form of the perpetrator of your upset weeping by your graveside as you look down on the scene with a degree of vindication. However, thankfully in most cases this never progresses past a teenage fantasy, and soon context and perspective kick in, and we move on to thinking about something else or another way of managing the situation.
However, this fantasy of vengeance is enacted in the case of Hannah Baker. She exacts revenge and publicly shames her enemies in a similar way to which she had experienced at their hands.
In the absence of a psychological autopsy, there is no way to fully understand why someone takes their own life. For some people it may be an inability to take the pain of their lives anymore, for others it may be as a result of shame or a sense of burden, and for others it may be as a result of a feeling of hopelessness that things will never be any different.
However, there are other motivators which can provide the impetus for suicidal thoughts, especially in young people, which sometimes involves the belief that suicide is an effective resolution of their current unhappiness which will sent out a message. This is often without the realisation that this ‘communication’ is a permanent response to a sometimes temporary set of difficulties. In my work with suicidal young people for the last 20 years I have realised that there is an important difference in ‘not wanting to live anymore’ and ‘wanting to be dead’. This difference is not often discussed due to the consequences it may cause for suicide survivors and this makes complete sense. However perhaps one of the benefits of the 13 Reasons Why series is that maybe it has brought this taboo aspect of suicidality into a discussion.
We often understand suicide as a rejection of life, but far less discussed is the concept of suicide being a pursuit of death. In the latter circumstance, the dying aspect of the suicide holds more significance. Here, the young person believes that suicide will make people finally understand how unhappy they are and will prove to the world the authenticity of their sadness and hopelessness. This concept of suicide is similar to the consideration of some suicides as acts of vengeance. We will all reassure ourselves after a death by suicide that there was nothing we could have done and in many cases that is absolutely true.
However there is always the more private intrapersonal contemplation of whether that is actually true. As someone who has unfortunately been a suicide survivor on a few occasions over my career, it is definitely the most difficult and lonely aspect of this work. I consider therapists or any mental health clinicians as suicide survivors. Over my career I have lost a small number of young people who I have worked with to suicide. These events still affect you deeply, despite you not being a family or considered a close friend. Obviously you are not experiencing this loss in the context of close family members or friends, but it is unavoidable not to ruminate and preoccupy over whether you could have done anything differently. This is an uncomfortable and pain-staking process that never leaves you as a practitioner. All of the young people who I have known who have taken their own lives have left an indelible mark on my emotional world. I am not saying this to be suggestive that suicide actually does prove a point, but I am trying to meaningfully add to the conversation that 13 Reasons Why has begun.
There is another source of ambivalence for me in this series as it addresses the notion that dramatic change can occur with regard to someone’s suicidal intent if someone reaches out and offers help to the person. This may well be true in some cases, but as illustrated in the case of Hannah Baker, a peer from her poetry group offered her a connection on the last day of her life yet this was not enough to change the outcome of her decision making process. This suggests that it may take more than just a kind gesture to change people’s experiences of mental distress and suicide and I think that this is sometimes an inconvenient truth, but an incredibly important one. Some mental health campaigns raise the importance of talking to someone when you are feeling low. This is undoubtedly an effective intervention in some cases. However, in other cases where someone is in an extremely dark place they may well need something considerably more. It is convenient to suggest that by talking to someone your mental health problems will be resolved as that may only be the case in circumstances where someone is considered to be part of the ‘worried well’ community. However, there are other people who experience quite a more acute and darker experience of mental illness and psychological distress where a chat is simply not enough. They need considerably more intervention th an that. I sometimes worry whether the lack of poignancy in some mental health campaigns can inspire hope in some people but maybe also diminish hope in others? By this I mean that if someone is suffering from a very severe depression or crippling anxiety and they follow the mainstream advice to talk to someone in their family or peer group but this does not affect any change, what happens then? If I do as advised and talk to someone but I do not feel any better, does that negatively affect my future hopes that something more can be done to help me? I understand why we need to promote hopefulness in terms of mental health treatment and talking therapies, but we must not sell an idea that recovering from a mental health problem is easy. Unfortunately it is not. It demands a lot of hard work and perseverance and it can take a longer time than we would like. I repeatedly describe the metaphor of psychotherapy as a ‘physiotherapy of the mind’. By this I am suggesting that it is often not enough to just attend for the sessions on a weekly basis, one needs to be doing the stretches and exercises in between the sessions which is often the hardest part of treatment and recovery. I sometimes worry that if we pitch mental health treatment as an easy or quick fix to unhappiness, we might be raising expectations which only serve to encourage hopelessness if the response is not as quick or as effective as our initial expectations anticipated. I think this is especially relevant to young people who may be sold an idea of on demand happiness which unfortunately is just not a reality of life. We need to emphasise the value of talking but we also need to provide effective and available services to provide this support and be realistic about the timeframes and effort that are core aspects of recovery.
In the case of Hannah Baker she attended Mr Portman (School Counsellor) on the day she had decided to take her own life. She tested him by giving him some information but omitted other pieces of her story. She wanted him to be able to read between the lines and save her, but he did not and so in her eyes he failed. The depiction of his distractedness in the therapy room, (his phone is ringing and there is a demand on his time), is an important one. It speaks to the risks of overwhelmingly busy and distracted mental health services and how this can cause things to be missed.
In summary, my main concern is that 13 Reasons Why does not provide a take home message of hope and this is where the effectiveness of its poignancy is missed. This series is not like the road safety adverts that traumatise the viewer in order to positively impact on subsequent real life behaviour. Instead it merely traumatises the audience to feel hopeless. In 13 Reasons Why there are no solutions. The moral message which conveys the need to be nicer to people is weak and understated, whereas the message that suggests that suicide is effective as an act of vengeance is much much stronger.
As a result of this inaccuracy, this show is risky. Despite it addressing important issues in effective ways that a young audience can relate to, its potential impact on a vulnerable young person who is contemplating taking their own life in order to right the wrongs of others is clear and present. I worry that vulnerable young people who are enduring the mistreatment of others might get the impression that this is an effective way to carry out this irreversible act. Therefore I feel it is something that may be suitable for some older young people but desperately unsuitable for others.
If anything good is to come out of this series, it is to discuss and debate the strengths and weaknesses of the story. It should be debated how it accurately and inaccurately portrays aspects of contemporary life. I would encourage parents to watch this series as it may help create an awareness of the struggles of young people in today’s world and help them to open up conversations about some of the more difficult topics.
The main issue that this series raises is how we raise meaningful awareness about mental health issues which resonates with the audience, without unnecessarily traumatising the viewer. If the cost of poignancy is disturbance then we have yet to strike the right balance between these two outcomes. In future where poignancy is to be achieved there must be a message of hope and realism or at least some helpful message that will encourage viewers to respond in more helpful ways to the inevitable stresses of contemporary life