“13 Reasons Why” inspires dialogue around mental illness

Illustrated by James Elliot and Maddie

A wave of schools nationally have warned parents against the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why because it “romanticizes” suicide, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). 13 Reasons Why centers on a teen girl’s suicide and the 13 tapes she leaves detailing her decision to kill herself. The show deals with many heavy topics, such as cyberbullying, depression, alcohol and substance abuse, sexual assault and suicide. 

Like many U.S. high schools, Marlborough issued a recommendation regarding the “most tweeted about show of 2017.” In a letter sent out on Tuesday, Apr. 18 to all Marlborough parents; the School, along with Director of Educational and Counseling Services Marisa Crandall, recommended that “if you choose to allow your daughter to view this series…you may want to watch the series before or alongside your daughter.”  This letter seemed to be aimed more at the Middle School to help ensure safe spaces to talk about serious issues; but it might have been appropriate to write a different letter to the Upper School. However, I do think the School is making a step in the right direction with starting a conversation around the show.

Now, more than ever, it is important to have discussions about mental health. According to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1999 to 2014 the U.S. suicide rate increased 24 percent. Additionally, the report states that suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10-to-34-year-olds.

The show doesn’t skirt around the topic of suicide or play at suggestions of suicide. Instead, 13 Reasons Why dives into the topic unflinchingly. Cyberbullying, depression, alcohol and substance abuse, sexual assault and suicide don’t exist solely on the screen. These are real issues that real people are dealing with. The show encourages young people to start talking and not to dismiss their own feelings or the feelings of others. By starting a dialogue, by learning the warning signs of suicide, we will save the lives of “vulnerable youth.”

The show depicts graphic scenes of both Hannah’s suicide and rape and another character’s rape. These scenes are extremely hard to watch, and I’m not saying that everyone should watch them. What I am saying is that the show, with all of its hard-edged scenes, is a place to start a dialogue about suicide, cyberbullying, depression, sexual assault and a host of other topics. And this is a good thing because once we start talking, we can start dealing with these issues. Far from “glamorizing” suicide, as the NASP suggests, the show’s creators, according to writer Nic Sheff in his Vanity Fair op-ed, “show what an actual suicide really looks like—to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse.”