GUEST POST: Let’s Talk About the Depiction of Mental Illness in Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”

Hey everyone—Nikkie here! I’m just popping in to tell you to put your hands together for my lovely and talented bestie, Christina, who is gracing us with a guest post on the recent Netflix adaptation of the popular YA book 13 Reasons Why. Enjoy!

I was five when I had my first panic attack. My dad took me to my usual Wednesday night ballet class after picking me up from the sitter’s house. After I suited up in my tutu and pink ballet flats, we started rehearsal.  I was excited because that day was particularly special: We were going to show off the turns we worked on the week prior. As we got into position, I looked at the row of seats to my right to make sure Dad was paying attention and realized he wasn’t there.

Panic immediately took over. I was by myself. Everyone else had someone to share that moment with, but not me. I’m not sure what happened next, but tears filled my eyes, I couldn’t breathe, and I sat on the floor with my knees tucked near my chest as I rocked myself. Twenty minutes later, after ringing my dad several times, he returned to pick me up from practice, apologizing for leaving by explaining he went to the store.

Of course, at the time, I didn’t know what I was experiencing, or why my brain switched into flight mode, but I recall that being my first dance with anxiety.

I’m close to 30 now, and I’ve been diagnosed with moderate to severe anxiety, abandonment issues, moderate depression and PTSD from traumatic episodes that happened throughout my upbringing. I’m a walking, breathing, living example of what it means to have mental illnesses. I’ve struggled with bouts of laying in my bed for days; waking up in the middle of the night from anxiety attacks taking over; ugly crying fits where it seems like I’ll never catch my breath. I used to be ashamed of my mental disorders until I found ways to relate to the outside world.

The media was my solace for accepting who I was and what I went through. In my teens, I saw characters who had the same struggles I did grace the screen and swim through book pages. And for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel alone. I’m sure that’s how a lot of others within the mental disorder community felt when 13 Reasons Why made its novel debut in 2007. The world was introduced to Hannah Baker, a teenager trying to survive the trials and tribulations of high school, but ultimately feeling helpless and like she had to take matters into her own hands. Nearly 10 years later, her story became a Netflix original series, and it has stirred the controversy pot of the internet, psychologists, and parents alike. But is the adaptation as severe as the critics paint Hannah’s story to be?

Let me start off by saying: If you are someone with a past or current history of self-harm, has/had suicidal thoughts, or knows someone who has taken their own life, you need to run as fast as you can from this show. Netflix tries its best to put in the appropriate trigger warning scripts before certain episodes, but it’s not enough. The delicacy of this topic is poorly handled, to say the least, and it’s my personal recommendation that you tune into another series.

The point of my post here isn’t to argue whether there should be a series that covers the topic of suicide, but rather, if 13 Reasons Why gives an accurate and fair portrayal of what mental illness is. For the five-second recap: Hannah Baker kills herself and leaves behind 13 tapes for those who “led her” to commit suicide. The story is told from the point of view of Clay (the love interest), and he takes us through each person’s experience with Hannah and how they’re left asking themselves how they could’ve changed the course of her history. This is the most controversial topic about the show in my opinion. We learn about everyone else in Hannah’s life except her. Does she struggle with mental disorders? Do we see her locked up in her room for days on end? Crying uncontrollable? Losing her grip on life?

The show leaves you asking, “Whose story is this?” The narrative is spread so thin, you don’t know who is dealing with what (especially Hannah) and we see the blame game happen—lots of fingers are pointed, and guilt is spread around. Serena Smith, a writer for The Tab UK, says it best: “Suicide isn’t caused by other people – it’s not murder.”

The point being made here is that suicide isn’t caused by bullying; it’s caused by mental illness. But this series takes the mental health aspect and brushes it to the side. We never truly tap into Hannah’s psyche—she’s just one of the narrators.

**feels everyone fly toward the comments to begin typing away about how this stance is bullshit**

I get if this upsets you. And that’s the point. The world’s take on mental illness is so taboo thanks to this generation and the world we live in.  Times are different. Back in my day (when I used to hang out at the mall because it was cool and actually saw MySpace come to fruition), the TV shows I gravitated toward took the ballsy step of trying to make viewers aware of the struggles the teens of the ’00s went through. We saw their character development over episodes, seasons—hell, even movie spin-offs. But most importantly, we saw the psychological development of characters, which we lack in 13 Reasons Why.

Let’s take Degrassi: Next Gen as the pinnacle of characters with mental issues. The series tackled some realistic issues: rape, mental disorders, STDs, being drugged at parties, abusive relationships, and bullying. Craig and Ellie were the poster children of mental illness. We saw Craig survive an abusive father, a deep dive into drugs and the rockstar lifestyle, and manic and depressive mood swings; he was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Ellie dealt with finding her identity, an alcoholic mom and an absent dad—tackling the subjects of abandonment issues and depression, as well as addiction—and we watch her tackle inner demons with self-harm and alcoholism. And this just dips into the surface.

The point being, this show’s slogan was “It Goes There,” and it truly did. We witnessed a decent representation of mental health and how it can impact someone.

To go even further with my Degrassi point, actress Aislinn Paul (who played Claire Edwards in Next Gen) tweeted after 13 Reasons Why came out and said the show “discusses teen suicide and depression in an unhelpful and unhealthy way.”

Even actors who starred in 13 Reasons Why have controversial stances on how mental health is being handled. The way other generations are viewing this show proves that awareness and sensitivity levels are at an all-time high. Actor Brandon Flynn, who plays Justin, mentioned in an interview that trigger warnings are extremely paramount in today’s world.

So, as I gently, but powerfully step off my soapbox about this show, my final thoughts are this: The series is extremely graphic and not for those who are sensitive to such depictions of suicide and self-harm. However, May IS National Mental Health Awareness Month, and this show has attracted millions of viewers. I was hopeful we would’ve seen a better representation of what it means to deal with mental illness, but sadly, 13 Reasons Why plays into the stereotypical taboo of the subject. I’m thankful for the shows I had growing up, and I hope there’s someone out there who’s brave enough to step forward with a concept that truly depicts the struggles of mental illness daily for today’s youth.

One thought on “GUEST POST: Let’s Talk About the Depiction of Mental Illness in Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”

  1. A lot of my students watched that show including myself. They were pretty much split over how Hannah’s suicide was portrayed. Some thought it was well done and some thought it was romanticized a bit and may even increase teen suicide. However I think any show that brings some type of mental health awareness to the forefront needs to be applauded.

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