13 reasons why the Netflix series gets suicide wrong

The topic of suicide has been in my Facebook newsfeed for the past few weeks, spurred by the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why.” I haven’t seen the show, and I won’t see it, for my own wellbeing. From those who have seen it, I’ve learned that rape and suicide are depicted graphically, which is very much the wrong material for me.

I can’t comment on the show itself, but I do feel compelled to weigh in on its popularity. Here are 13 reasons why I believe this cultural phenomenon is getting suicide all wrong.

  1. Suicide is romanticized. I’m told there’s nothing romantic about the depiction of suicide in this series. It is not, perhaps, the intent of the storytellers to romanticize it, but the sheer popularity of the show defies this. Thousands of people are watching it. To imagine that a national audience will bear witness to your pain and suicide is to sensationalize and romanticize a devastating act, to turn it into literary tragedy.
  2. Suicide shouldn’t be transformed into an act of revenge against bullies. I like a revenge fantasy as much as the next person. “The Girl Most Likely To” is a favorite of mine. However, the “comfort” of revenge depends upon the ability to watch your enemies suffer, and you can’t witness revenge after you’re gone. Suicide is the end.
  3. Suicide rarely has “reasons.” We are transfixed by cause and effect in this culture. If suicide were a linear and rational action, we might be able to understand its causes. It is, most frequently, the action of a person with mental illness. Events in our lives can serve as catalysts, but they are rarely sufficient to “cause” the act. Millions of people are bullied and raped and assaulted and abused in this culture and never choose suicide.
  4. Suicide is the action of a person who has been victimized. Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And so it is with suicide. Those who take their own lives do so for as many reasons as there are self-inflicted deaths. Mental illness warps our perceptions of our worth. It mangles a sense of hope. It tells us that our families will be better off without us. It tells us a hundred lies, and it doesn’t need the help of an abuser.
  5. Survivors bear blame for those who choose suicide. “13 Reasons Why” is, as I’ve heard others discuss it, as much about bullying as it is about suicide. We must confront bullying in our culture, but it’s a mistake to focus on blame. Families and friends of people who die by suicide are left shouldering a huge weight of guilt, imagining the hundreds of ways they failed. We are all, ultimately, responsible for our own choices.
  6. “13 Reasons Why” is providing us a great opportunity to talk with our kids about suicide. It breaks my heart to hear that a story about a completed suicide is what we are using to prompt the conversation. Suicide can be prevented. Suicidal ideation, particularly in teenagers, is transient. When those who suffer reach out, plenty of people can reach back. Professionals can provide healing. Suicidal thoughts are not a permanent way of life.
  7. Suicide shouldn’t be the context for entertainment. I understand that we can’t judge art on the basis of its potential for counseling. As an English professor, I know the argument well. But, when it comes to our kids, I have to draw the line. It’s just wrong to enjoy this show, no matter how sad you are when it’s over.
  8. Graphically depicting the act of suicide is a deterrent. I’ve been told that the graphic and painful depiction of this suicide is a horrifying scene, and, thus, will serve as a reminder of its horror. Unfortunately, depicting suicide, and even reporting the method of suicide in a newspaper article, tends to serve as a trigger. It’s easier to commit an act that you’ve seen than one that you’ve only imagined.
  9. Suicide is a rare, and therefore, newsworthy and fascinating way to die. Suicide is the 10th most common way of dying in the US. Almost 45,000 people will die by suicide this year.
  10. Suicide is an isolated event. One suicide in a community can become a domino effect and inspire copycats. A media event like “13 Reasons” can also be a powerful trigger. Suicide clusters are rare, but they’re most common in folks 25 and under, exactly the demographic of this show.
  11. Suicide is a teen problem. In fact, middle-aged men have the highest rate of suicide, and men are three times more likely than women to complete suicide.
  12.  Suicide’s aftermath is satisfying. Because the focus of this show is on the “why” of suicide and the search for its reasons, it provides the viewer a satisfying resolution. Hannah gets to tell her own story and shape her own narrative. Unfortunately, the aftermath of suicide is actually all about the survivors and about the utter devastation wrought on families and friends.
  13. Suicide is offered as a choice. I get it. Some people do choose suicide. In fact, suicide can end a person’s suffering. When the people around us make this choice and when the media dramatize the choice, it tends to normalize the action. It offers suicide as an option, no matter how problematic.

When I was a teenager, the popular suicide story was the movie “Ordinary People.” Perhaps it lacks the drama and anticipation of 13 episodes, but it tells a truer and more constructive story. Conrad attempts suicide, survives and finds a counselor who helps him build a bridge over his grief and guilt. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a movie, ultimately, of hope. Our kids, in fact all of us, deserve a story of hope.

This is the official statement of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

We cannot comment specifically about the movie Thirteen Reasons Why. Suicide is a public health issue, and the subject matter and genre portrays suicide in a way that is likely insensitive to those who have been affected by suicide. The portrayal of suicide in mass media and the entertainment industry should be informed by using best practices. The best way to inform the general public is to present suicide, so that imitation is minimized, and help-seeking encouraged. We have learned through research that the way suicide is shared through television, movies and news media can create suicide contagion, can put those affected by suicide more at risk, and can create further confusion and misinformation about the causes of suicide and the interventions that help prevent it. Suicide is a leading cause of death, and it’s preventable. It’s imperative that dramatic fictional depictions, as well as the mass media provide positive, informative coverage of the issue so we can put a stop to this tragic loss of life.”

For more information about suicide, go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

If you are feeling hopeless, you don’t have to suffer alone. Reach out to the National Suicide Lifeline, 1.800.273.8255

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