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Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why was released to mixed reactions. Many defend its bold take on suicide, depression and mental illness. Others have blamed it for the horrific suicide of their own children, claiming that despite the warnings of graphic depictions, the show pushed their children to extreme action.
Whatever you feel about the series, it’s easy to see that while the show probably had good intentions, they were carried out in the wrong way.
The series follows a young man named Clay Jensen. He returns home from school one day to find a mysterious box filled with cassette tapes. It turns out those tapes are from a girl he had a crush on — and who was one of Clay’s classmates — Hannah Baker. She had committed suicide just two weeks earlier, and the tapes detail why she decided to end her life — hence the name 13 Reasons Why.
Throughout the course of the show, themes of mental illness and bullying emerge. It’s a powerful experience with more than a few strong messages. But when it comes to suicide, it may have taken things a bit too far.
As it turns out, the show glorifies suicide by supporting a “revenge suicide” narrative. Younger audiences can glean the wrong idea from the show. In some cases, it may have already happened.
This presents an important opportunity to discuss how the show could have been better — healthier, so to speak — for those with a mental illness.
Because as a community, it’s time we start taking mental health more seriously.
- Suicide Is prevalent among adolescents
Suicide is growing increasingly more prevalent among adolescents, and more specifically, young women. As it happens, that’s the show’s target demographic, which is not healthy, to say the least. Those watching the show might see themselves in Hannah Baker.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates from 1999 to 2014 climbed considerably, especially among girls ages 10 to 14. In fact, rates for that age group climbed an alarming 200 percent.
Worse yet, signs of mental health among children and teens in this age range are less likely to be taken seriously. Teenagers have always had a reputation for being “dramatic,” especially when it comes to moody behavior. Parents may dismiss a sign because they think it’s normal.
Public reactions prevent people from seeking help
There’s a stigma surrounding mental illness — depression in particular. Not only are there negative perceptions about mental illness, but there are even more for those who seek professional support.
Sadly, those suffering are often too afraid to come forward. And why wouldn’t they be? They face severe discrimination on many levels, even at home and in their family.
This is partly due to a lack of education and resources on mental illness. It also has everything to do with a glorified media portrayal of mental illness and suicide, which comes from shows like 13 Reasons Why.
People don’t understand it
Due to a serious lack of education and resources, many people don’t understand mental illness even when they are suffering.
For example, if you were asked to look around you and find several people that suffer from depression without any other knowledge, could you do it, simply by looking?
You can’t because mental illness is internal. Just because someone is suffering doesn’t mean you can read it on their face or in their body language. That’s just one of many misconceptions about depression and mental illness.
The best way to support someone who has a mental illness is to educate yourself about it.
It’s not anyone’s fault
Another piece of baggage that weighs heavy is the blame that gets laid at the feet of those suffering. That is completely wrong. If you are suffering from depression, you don’t choose to feel that way. It’s primarily due to a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Mental illnesses can flare at any time, which explains why those suffering might seem happy one moment and depressed the next. Furthermore, medication and therapy can help, but it’s not effective for everyone.
Mental health directly impacts physical health
Even doctors sometimes put physical health over mental well-being, addressing physical issues thinking they are the root cause. For instance, someone suffering undiagnosed from depression who also is overweight might be told to focus on diet and exercise. While the latter is always good, it may not have any impact on mental health.
A 2003 study revealed that patients suffering from depression and arthritis were blessed with less physical pain and a higher quality of life after receiving antidepressants. Their mental health was addressed first, and it improved their overall health.
People directly responsible for our own well-being have a tough time even understanding the root problem. That’s a powerful message, and it’s one we would do well to identify.
We need more than disclaimers
Before certain episodes of 13 Reasons Why, a disclaimer shows on screen. It includes a link to a site of crisis intervention resources, but many may say that’s not enough.
We need more than that for our community, and we all deserve more than that. If you’re going to bring attention to mental illness and depression, you need to discuss as much about it as you can.
Those suffering don’t know how to get help
When you break a bone or experience a severe injury, you know to go to the doctor or emergency clinic.
When you’re suffering from depression or mental illness, it’s hard to know where to get help even if it’s right in front of you. This happens for several reasons, one being you simply don’t know help is available. The other is that despite how much you may want help, you cannot physically or mentally seek it yourself.
We have a trust problem
We also have a serious trust problem when it comes to mental illness. Those suffering often don’t tell friends, family or colleagues. They also avoid telling medical professionals because mental illness doesn’t receive the kind of attention it should. In fact, a lot of those suffering might not even trust the people closest to them, as 13 Reasons Why shows.
The stigma is going to be difficult to do away with, and it could take years, maybe even decades. But we can start by showing those suffering they can and should trust us.
We ignore the warning signs
We know that genetics and early environment significantly impact mental health. It can even play a role in whether or not you have an addictive personality and fall into abusing drugs or alcohol.
If we know these are potential signs, why do we ignore them? Why don’t we prepare those with a predisposition for depression and mental illness by educating them and checking in on them regularly? There’s no reason to be overbearing, but the occasional well-being check is not a bad idea.
Environmental pressures are worse in the modern world
The adolescents and teens of today arguably have a lot more to deal with than the teens of the past. Social and academic pressures are exacerbated not just by their peers but also by the presence of the internet and social media. Recreational drugs are also more accessible and can play a role in mental health.
It’s not necessarily that they have a more difficult life, but there’s definitely more pressure on them. For instance, an unflattering photo could be used to bully a young woman at her high school. But now, it can also be posted on social media and various websites to extend the bullying beyond local boundaries. That girl is then bullied and attacked on a massive scale.
Imagine being in that situation and how helpless it would feel, with nowhere to escape. This is the reality we live in today.
We should focus on ‘why’ people choose suicide
It’s morbid and dark, definitely, but understanding the motivation of those who commit suicide is crucial to preventing it. The truth is understandably muddied, which is exactly what the show is trying to bring attention to — but in all the wrong ways.
Researchers studied suicide notes written by those who attempted suicide and found an alarming correlation. Most of those who actually killed themselves felt they were a burden to those around them. Researchers also noticed patterns of hopelessness and the belief that death was an escape from pain.
Mental illness and depression hurts
Most mental illnesses, especially severe depression and some personality disorders, are accompanied by pain. Not physical pain like you might receive from a wound or cut, but emotional and mental pain.
Those who are suffering sink not because they want to, but because they have no choice. They don’t think they have the strength to pull themselves out. It’s like being forced to wear a helmet filled with jagged spikes. Every time you move, every time you breathe, you’re reminded that it’s there poking into you, stabbing you. While that depiction may seem graphic, it’s the closest you’ll ever get to experiencing severe depression if you don’t already.
We need to acknowledge that it hurts and that it’s serious.
The rates of mental disorders are rising
Depression, addiction, eating disorders, suicide, learning disabilities, psychological trauma — all of these things are on the rise in their respective age groups. In short, that means in a demographic that is prone to these issues — like adolescents — the risks are increasing considerably. In fact, mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the United States.
Which brings us to our final point, and it’s a return to one we made previously. Education and awareness on mental illness need to be a core focus, but not just the kind of attention garnered from a show like 13 Reasons Why. It needs to be healthy, constructive and accurate information that helps everyone understand the root of these ailments.