Mixed Signals about Mental Health: On 13 Reasons Why

April 18, 2017

Getting on the interstate again and I shuffle onto Spotify’s New Music Friday because they usually have some outstanding picks. I was pleasantly surprised to see Lorde come through with new tunes, but I wasn’t prepared for the song that came over my car stereo. Lorde’s Liability hit awfully close to home. I mean, way close. I barely made it through the first verse before the tears started flowing: “He made the big mistake of dancing in my storm.” Sounds about right for a girl who has always been labeled intense. She goes on to sing, “You’re a liability, you’re a little much for me.” More truth, more tears. I spent my entire childhood being an overachiever who was either too serious or too passionate to intellectually mesh with a lot of people my own age. When I started to date, more of the same crept in as my fervor for “busy” and “doing” and “feminism” among other interests and identities became a little too much for people to take in. Feeling like you can’t fully be yourself – all complexities and “baggage” included – in social circles, workplaces, and every space in between, takes a toll. For me, I was virtually desensitized to what it meant to be mentally well when it came to having confidence in my own eccentricities.

I didn’t really think about the damage I could cause as I stood on the opposite shoulder and my little fingers clicked the words “You’re a liability” into my text message box two years ago and shot my fuming sentiments off through space. Dating can be rough and sometimes you say things you don’t mean out of anger, out of fear, out of sadness. I thought I meant every last serif when I typed and facelessly sent off that phrase to someone I felt wrecked my life in the process of destroying their own. Unfortunately, many, many factors placed us both at that threshold of acting and reacting – most centered around our mental health, or lack thereof.

I’m not sure when our society started mistaking intensity, emotionality, and transparency for images of someone who is damaged, problematic, and burdensome. After watching 13 Reasons Why last week, I faced the reality that a large fraction still has to do with the media we embrace and I felt all my teenage embarrassment return. Since the book’s release nearly a decade ago, we – as consumers of American media – have become inundated with portrayals of violence, ridicule, demeaning language, bullying, abuse, and assault. I watched the Netflix series lightly, at first, as it almost instantly brought back the nostalgia of high school love and parties and everything that now feels entirely too young to be doing at 17. But as Hannah’s narration on the tapes unfolds, and as we learn how she places direct blame on those around her for her suicide, I’m left feeling a little hopeless for today’s youth.

There are not many things I wish less to be than a teenager in 2017. 13 Reasons Why furthers that disdain because its portrayal of suicide feels trendy and frankly flippant. Figuring out your strengths, interests, and goals is challenging enough without the presence of media. The show highlights the increasing role of social media and personal connectivity in the mental wellness of youth and teens, but does so in a skirted and restrained manner: the show fails to blatantly explore mental illness and a multitude factors contributing to a decision of suicide. The posthumous blame game Hannah plays is terrifying, and I cringed painfully when Clay reiterated “Did I kill her?” Of course, Clay didn’t physically kill Hannah, although her tapes naming reasons for committing suicide place express blame on her family, classmates, and school personnel.

As noted in the show’s follow up documentary with the author, screenwriter, director, and actors, Hannah is intentionally created as an imperfect character. Still, the writing and imagery in the show downplay complexity, diminish language used to discuss and tackle issues of mental health and wellness, and neglect substance abuse and mental illness as possible factors contributing to Hannah’s ultimate suicide. Humans are emotionally complex beings and I’m not sure why we repeatedly accept portrayals and discourse that say otherwise – as if Hannah’s suicide was imminent and directly causal by 13 individuals despite attempts to intercept. One critique of 13 Reasons Why I read last week says the book/show “does too much.” Of course, it does too much; it’s depicting a take on real life and emotional distress. The real problematic element, however, is how much the content tackles at such little depth. Suicide and self-harm cannot be whittled down so much that facile is ever an attachable adjective to such decisions. Imperfection does not serve as a just character flaw when such triggering content is accessible by viewers undoubtedly in similar mental crises as Hannah reveals; suicide contagion is real thus showing Hannah’s uncomfortable death onscreen does not suffice as appropriately bringing tough topics to light.

Hannah’s imperfection and confoundedness, while realistic and relatable for all too many, diminish her choice of suicide because she evidently does not exhaust all options for help and does not sufficiently let a majority of people in before writing them off as a contributing reason. The tone of the overall show is vengeful and indicates Hannah was only heard after her death – as if that is the only way to bring attention to one’s mental distress. Sure, the show is raw. I appreciate the rawness, graphic nature and whistleblowing on all perpetrators, to an extent, that implies a necessary culture shift towards openly communicating about difficult subjects. Still, we’re quick to slap parental warnings and elevated ratings on content “not suitable for younger viewers” but girls and boys are already dealing with these issues in actuality. I think the show does a fair job of implying that all teens face complex lives and challenging situations, but the presentation of Hannah as a normal girl (whatever that means) to which bad things continue to happen purely due to actions/inactions of others is misleading. If you’re currently struggling with depression, consideration of suicide, or are a survivor of sexual assault, triggering scenes in 13 Reasons Why are not satisfactorily portrayed with corresponding instances of hope, of light, of alternative measures. Thus, the rawness falls short and the approach to the “tough topics” is misinterpreted. While content can be well-intentioned, we live in a society that requires thorough depiction of serious issues and does not force a fictional character to serve a martyr for complex actions.

Media such as 13 Reasons Why is here to stay, and I imagine it will only continue to challenge, distort, and simplify reality. How do we hold up? All complexities in tow, your presence is not a liability. Ever.

Be transparent

Seek help.

Ask questions.

Find a passion.

Write your heart out.

Read the words of others.

Listen to song lyrics.

Donate time, money when appropriate.

Observe behavior in others.

Talk about the hard times out loud.

Be kind.


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