I am at the Canadian Mental Health Association Suicide Prevention Conference in beautiful Orillia, Ontario, and I thought what a perfect time to share my thoughts on the widely talked about series, ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’, which is based on the events leading up to a teenager’s suicide. For those of you who haven’t watched this series yet, this post will be a spoiler – so alert! This post also speaks very candidly about suicidal ideation and may be a trigger for some.
The basic premise of the show is that a girl who is in high school dies by suicide and leaves a series of cassette tapes for various friends to listen to, to show them the ways in which they played a role in her death – thirteen ways to be exact. When I heard about this show I was happy that teenage suicide would be discussed in a medium that most teens are very familiar with – Netflix. And I was hopeful that it would be a realistic portrayal of the dark world in which the minds of those with suicidal ideation live in. My overall review however is that I am very disappointed.
Let me preface the following comments with a reminder that these are my thoughts alone. My perspective and my opinion – as a suicide survivor.
What I didn’t like about the show (beyond the horrible acting) was that it focused primarily on the main character, Hannah’s, vengeful personality rather than the darkness that mental illness would have forced her to experience prior to her death. The writers share details about horrible trauma she experiences (which quite often is a predetermining factor for mental illness which leads to death by suicide), but beyond the traumatic details each episode reveals, the show falls short of effectively bringing the viewer inside her mind – the mind of suicidal ideation.
The plot’s main focus is on the reveal of Hannah’s vengeful tapes. Episode after episode her angry voice tells her friends how they directly played a role in her death causing them to conspire against each other so that the ‘blame’ doesn’t land on themselves. Yes, the slow unraveling of lies and coverup’s make for a great TV series drama, but there is so much more to the story of a teenaged girl who dies by suicide – so much more than the spitefulness the writer’s focused on.
From what I have come to learn from experience, is that a person who encounters trauma may in fact go through a stage of wanting to seek revenge, but when the stage of death by suicide is reached, the individual is so deeply trapped in a world of hopelessness, and is suffocated by relentless distorted thinking that their mind literally doesn’t have the cognitive ‘space’ for the thought of revenge any longer. At the point when a person dies by suicide, their mind convinces them that they, and their family would be better off dead for any number of reasons why – sadly this list of reasons could go on ad infinitum. At this point their mind which has been imprisoned by mental illness’s cell-walls only thinks of how to be freed from it’s pain. At this point, darkness has seeped into their veins, making it physically impossible to see anything but death.
Graphic detail alert. In the very last episode the main character dies after bleeding out because she cuts her wrists. In reference to this scene, I feel that it was the writers responsibility to show how the knife represents a life-threatening illness that won. Sadly, I feel the writers made the knife seem like a choice in her hand.
Yes, ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’, continued the important discussion about teenage suicide, but I feel it dropped the ball on its chance to invoke conversation about mental illness. And if they had done the latter, they would have made an important step towards making sure that this sentence wouldn’t be confusing to anyone.