Why I’m Afraid of Netflix’s New Hit Show: Imitative Suicide and 13 Reasons Why

After watching 13 Reasons Why, suicide has been all I can think about, in an unhealthy way. I’ve been watching the show despite it being incredibly triggering, because I keep being told to give it a chance. I recently listened to a Freakonomics podcast about suicide (highly recommend Freakonomics if you’re into podcasts like me), and it was enlightening in that it talked about the issue that 13 Reasons Why has been making me fear the most – imitative suicide.

One of the most intriguing cases of imitative suicide with the most telling results happening in Austria in in the second half of 1987. Because of high profile coverage of suicides on the Viennese subway, there was a huge jump in imitative suicides. To address this problem, the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention developed media guidelines about to address suicide, what images to show, and how to better prevent further instances. By changing the way that the Austrian media talks about suicide, there was a dramatic decrease in suicides in Austria. However, is censoring media coverage of suicide only furthering the problems with the stigma that surrounds suicide? Does starting the conversation about suicide and preventing suicide always have to be head-to-head?

For a short answer to that big question, I would say no. I’ve had successful experiences in small groups facilitating discussions about suicide prevention and I’ve seen it done on the media, in social settings, in the classroom, etc. 13 Reasons Why does provide an important conversation about bullying, sexual assault, and suicide, and my problems with the show aside, the cast is incredibly talented and diverse. Yet the show, in my opinion, is dangerous. My opposition to the show does not mean that I think suicide should remain silent and taboo – in fact, I’ve spoken out against the suicide taboo many times – but is a critique on the way that suicide is addressed in this show.

Graphic depictions of suicide lead to increases in suicide (again, listen to that Freakonomics podcast!). It’s not a controversial opinion; there is data that backs up these findings. When I first read the book, I was about thirteen or fourteen years old, and was just beginning to be influenced by mental illness and anxiety. I was hoping that a book about suicide, a topic that had been creeping into my mind, would help me better understand what I was going through. It only made me feel worse, and I can’t imagine what seeing a visual representation of the story would do to a person watching the show who is experiencing suicidal or self-harming thoughts. Granted, there are content warnings before more brutal or heavy episodes. But I know that I wouldn’t have paid much attention to them when I was younger, because I didn’t fully understand what I was going through.

Suicide cannot be riddled down to thirteen reasons or thirteen people. It’s complicated and complex. If you’re interested in the complexities, reach out to me, I’ve got access to a lot of resources and scholarship.

I am glad that the show decided to take on such an important topic, but am unhappy about the ways in which the topic was portrayed. I believe there could have  been more of an effort to talk about mental health and prevention. I know that the story is about a girl who was bullied, not mentally ill, and that thousands of suicides occur because of bullying. But I’m thinking about the impact here –  it is so difficult to access information about mental illness as a young person, especially if they are just beginning to experience mental illness, and this show is triggering to a point far beyond what I was expecting.

I know that I can’t speak for everyone. But my experiences are certainly relevant. I was bullied throughout my life – I was a bossy little kid who liked to read and would brag about my spelling test scores. Of course kids were mean to me. “Ditching” me on the playground was a game at recess – I wouldn’t go to the bathroom during the day because everytime I did, I would come out and my friends would be gone. In  middle and high school, friends talked about me behind my back frequently. Granted, we all talked about one another behind each other’s backs – but words affected me in a way that they didn’t affect everyone else. I had friends turn on me and break my heart. So yeah, I was bullied.

And on top of that, I had traumatic experiences with grief and loss and mental illness going on. So suicide is a familiar topic for me, as I’ve been in the position of feeling suicidal and I’ve dedicated a lot of my research and extracurricular experiences to suicide prevention and awareness.

I’ve seen a lot of articles and talked to a lot of people who have expressed concern with 13 Reasons Why – who feel it doesn’t represent the whole of feeling suicidal and feel that it portrays a false and dangerous message: If you kill yourself, everyone will feel bad about it and regret ever being mean to you. Even as someone who is no longer high-risk, the thought of everyone who was ever mean to me or pushed me aside feeling bad about it is appealing. And that terrifies me. If it’s appealing to me, how appealing is it to young people who are high-risk? Or are starting to have inklings of suicidal thoughts?

Yes, the show is addicting. Yes, there is phenomenal acting and representation in the show, which I don’t want to overlook at all. Maybe the show just isn’t made for people like me, who have had close experiences with suicide. But I think it’s safe to say that, if this show is having such a profound and terrifying effect on me, it’s having a profound and terrifying effect on many people. And the mere fact that so many people who identify as mentally disabled, have experience with suicide, or have experience with bullying are expressing discontent with this show demonstrates that there’s a problem. Obviously, not everyone with these experiences is expressing that there is a problem. But enough of them are.

I’m not saying that you’re not allowed to like the show, regardless of your relationship to suicide. I’m happy that there are people who have expressed love and healing that have come from this story. I’m so happy that it has facilitated a discussion about suicide, rape, and bullying.

I’m trying to say that, just  because you like the show, doesn’t mean you should discount the voices of people who are expressing concern. Do not label them as sensitive or easily triggered – I think I’ve made it quite clear that I’m not afraid to talk about suicide. My voice, and the voices of everyone else expressing concern, mean something, and that deserves to be heard and validated.

netflix27s_13_reasons_why_title_screen

Because I think talking about suicide and hearing stories about suicide is so important, here are a list of some of the better books that I have read that I think approach the issue in a much more accurate and less triggering way:

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Looking for Alaska by John Green

I Was Here by Gayle Forman

Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Hold Still by Nina LaCour

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

 

 

 

Author: erinlmoynihan

Writer, reader, traveler & activist

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