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The Importance of “Thirteen Reasons Why”

By Dakota O’Brien    

Published: May 3rd, 2017

On March 31, Netflix released its newest series, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” which summoned both widespread appraisal and widespread critique regarding the way in which it dealt with heavy topics such as suicide and rape.

The show, adapted from the 2007 Jay Asher novel of the same name, is made up of thirteen episodes, each one depicted as a tape directed towards one of the students who contributed to Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) suicide.

Even if you haven’t watched the Selena Gomez co-produced show yet, you have probably heard of it. Within the first week of its release, it had already racked up 3.5 million tweets, according to social media research firm Fizziology. Netflix users all over the country were raving about the content, the characters, and even the tears that certain episodes evoked.

On the surface, the show is entertaining, binge-worthy, and even seems like it is tackling issues that really happen in high schools, but are never really talked about. High school can seem like a daunting labyrinth, especially when the word “bullying” is added to the equation, but “Thirteen Reasons Why” gave somewhat of a visual to what bullied students experience. To parents who are clueless as to what may be causing their child to come home crying every day, the show gives thirteen possible reasons. It even addresses a quieter experience that a student might face: the one where no one even really notices that the bullying is happening or that the depression is heightening.

One of the most contentious scenes of the show is the scene where Hannah actually commits suicide; the writers didn’t leave much to the imagination. “It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to 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,” said one of the show’s writers, Nick Sheff, in a Vanity Fair op-ed.

Many viewers have agreed with this argument, reasoning that the highly graphic scene shows that suicide will hurt you physically, it isn’t quick and easy, and for most kids there will be parents who will find you in the bathtub full of blood you left.

However, organizations such as The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) beg to differ. “Research shows that exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide,” the NASP said in a statement.

In response, they, along with other suicide prevention groups such as Suicide Awareness Voices of Education and The Jed Foundation, released cautions and guidelines for watching. These organizations fear that if a person already dealing with mental health issues watches this show, they might feel inspired—for lack of a better word—to end their life in the same way.

Another critique of the show was its romanticizing of what happens after a suicide is committed, giving the impression that if you kill yourself, everyone will feel terrible and wish they never bullied you in the first place. Critics of the show don’t want students believing that suicide is the magic solution to finally receive attention from others for what they are going through.

Perhaps “Thirteen Reasons Why” could have acknowledged these concerns in a different manner; we can leave that question to the professionals. It did, however, point out serious issues and gave viewers a push to look out for these incidents that happen in schools all over the world. The show sent a message that needed to be heard: Bullying does occur in high schools, affects students, and isn’t always easily noticed.

The show also pointed out that suicide is not an isolated issue that one student impulsively makes; there are a series of events that lead up to the moment when a person finally decides to kill themselves. If we can all learn to be more observant, as well as compassionate, before that decision is made, we can begin to be part of the solution.

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