Netflix tackles mental health in controversial series of 2018

By Mara Tharp

First a book, now a television series whose third season is currently in the works, 13 Reasons Why is a hot topic among young people and adults. Public opinion on the controversial Netflix Original is shaky at best. Many parents and mental health professionals claim the show ‘glamorizes’ suicide, creating a dangerous avenue for young viewers. Their concern is not unwarranted – Hannah Baker, the show’s subject, casts the entirety of blame for her suicide on those around her.

While bullying, sexual assault and other tragic events can be directly linked to depression and suicidal ideations, the lack of ownership the show gives to Hannah Baker imparts a dangerous message. The drama following the release of Hannah Baker’s tapes builds a revenge fantasy that puts a grotesque twist on the aftermath of suicide. For those who are currently struggling with trauma similar to Hannah Baker’s, the show’s lasting impressions may prove to be triggering.

In the first season, the show failed to provide viewers resources in both dealing with mental illness and recognizing warning signs in others. The first episode features a teacher who begins to outline the warning signs to Baker’s classmates, but the lesson fades into a flashback. Following the response to the first seasons, Netflix added an additional Beyond the Reasons short that discussed the events of the series. They added a website with viewing guides, even featuring a PSA with the show’s actors warning viewers of the show’s content. There is still more to be desired in their provided resources and we will see how they improve this content in the new season. The existing two seasons of the show leave it fighting between being an exposition of a major public health issue and a bingeable series made to entertain.

Out of what the series does wrong in framing suicide and providing healthy resources, it strikes an important chord for viewers today. In a society where major tragedies are often merely a blip on our phone, it becomes easy to desensitize from true issues. While catastrophes may only receive a retweet or a like with no further thought, many of us will spend our energies reacting to issues of smaller consequence.

While catastrophes may only receive a retweet or a like with no further thought, many of us will spend our energies reacting to issues of smaller consequence.

An offensive tweet, celebrity gossip, minor inconveniences – I am guilty just as much as the next person. In this series, 13 Reasons Why attempts to make up for its shortcomings by reminding viewers of the true emotional tragedies that take place in every day.

Conversations across the globe have arisen due to the show’s ability to create strong emotion in the viewer. School districts (like Fairfax County Public Schools) have consulted with professionals on how to respond to students reactions to the show and informed their staff and parents of students. Facebook has turned into a forum of sorts, with adults, mental health professionals and young people alike commenting on the ramifications of the series.

The show woke up many viewers who may have become numb to what is truly a public health issue, but in doing so, it opened the door for unhealthy triggers about the same subject. Discussions about suicide, mental health, bullying and sexual assault are increasingly necessary in our society, but I warn anyone who goes to watch the show to prepare themselves for an intense experience. Hotlines, informative websites, advice on how to approach someone about mental health – this is information that needs to be available to everyone.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or suicide, utilize the resources available to you. Talk to someone you trust – a friend, a family member, a mental health professional. Find more information on suicidepreventionline.org or call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

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