How not to portray mental health
by Collin Billings
Staff Media Critic
Initially, 13 Reasons Why was praised for bringing attention to issues of mental health among adolescents. The show was characterized as “daring” for addressing such a controversial and complicated subject. However, many mental health professionals have criticized the show for misrepresenting depression and suicide. While there are certainly come aspects of the show that beneficially portray issues of mental health, as a whole, it fails in this respect.
One of the major issues of the show is its conflation of suicide with revenge. The entire show revolves around a set of 13 tapes that one of the main characters, Hannah, creates just before committing suicide. Each tape addresses a specific reason why she took her own life, these reasons typically center around a specific person. In a way, Hannah, and the show, blame her suicide on awful the actions of these individuals. As a result, the show, either intentionally or unintentionally, frames her suicide as a sort of revenge story, a way for Hannah to posthumously get back at the people who wronged her. The issue with this is that it attributes agency to suicide, in a way, glorifying it. While this doesn’t mean that every troubled teen who watches the show will kill themselves, it does relay a false conception of the issue.
To be fair, the show has many instances in which it portrays suicide correctly. One example that sticks out in my mind is Hannah’s suicide scene. The scene plays out in a way that would make even the most stoic viewers recoil. With the addition of the scene in which Hannah’s parents find her dead in the bathtub, the show does an excellent job of evoking empathy in the viewer. However, many mental health experts have criticized this scene as well because it fails to follow the guidelines for portraying suicide in media. They claim that the scene has the potential to inspire “copycat suicides” in impressionable viewers, a claim which has been backed by several scientific studies.
Another criticism of the show is that it only depicts examples of asking for help going wrong. After Hannah reaches out to her school’s guidance counselor, she expresses suicidal thoughts and admits to being sexually assaulted. However, Mr. Porter, the counselor, fails to effectively offer her support and is portrayed as being completely incompetent. For some viewers, this may give them the impression that reaching out for help is futile when this is not the case. While psychiatric incompetence certainly happens in the real world, it seems like a poor decision on the writer’s part to suggest through their story that asking for help won’t alleviate your problems.
Additionally, the show seems to portray suicide as being caused by external actions rather than internal ones. Throughout the show, Hannah is treated awfully by her classmates and the viewer is led to conclude that these are the reasons why she killed herself. However, the reality of suicide is that it is primarily caused by internal mental health issues as opposed to external forces. While external forces undoubtedly contribute to mental health issues, the viewer is rarely offered a glimpse into the internal thoughts of Hannah. Because of this, the show misidentifies the primary risk factors for suicide and provide the audience a mischaracterization of the issue.
Overall, the show does a wholly imperfect job of portraying the realities of mental health issues. While there are certainly some parts of the show that effectively showcase the reality of mental health, they are outweighed by its negative aspects.