The Psychology of ’13 Reasons Why,’ Suicide & High School Life
After watching the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” I can see why it was picked up for a second season.
It’s an engaging story with well-drawn characters that are more complex than typical high-school stereotypes. It’s a story that deals with a bunch of difficult topics students in high school face — texting, photo-sharing of a sexual nature, drinking, drugs, bullying, sexual assault, and, yes, suicide.
Some say the series idolizes suicide. Critics claim the series makes suicide look attractive, beautiful, tragic, and that the show contributes to dangerous suicide contagion.
Some say the series isn’t that bad and it’s a realistic portrayal of the challenges of modern high school life.
So where’s the truth? Somewhere in-between.
“13 Reasons Why” is a series that explores the life and times of a teenager, Hannah Baker, who ends her life. But not before leaving behind seven old-school cassette tapes filled on both sides with her story (six tapes of two sides, and one tape with one side = 13 reasons why). We hear the gist of each tape along with one of the main characters in the story, Clay, who’s also listening to them one by one. The series flashes between the present and the past, showing scenes involving Hannah and the focus of the tape — a different friend or acquaintance from school — in each episode.
The series works as a sort of murder mystery, but in reverse. And the person who died wasn’t killed by another person, but seemingly by the impact of a series of events, life circumstances, an accident, bullying, and more.
Contrary to some professionals’ assertions about the suicide contagion effect, it’s not at all clear whether this effect pertains to fictional portrayals of suicide. As Patrick Devitt notes, writing in Scientific American:
However, the research evidence in relation to fictional portrayals of suicide in TV and film is more complicated. Pirkis and colleagues reviewed the literature regarding film and television drama portrayals of suicide. The group was unable to offer conclusive answers to questions surrounding the impact of fictional suicides on actual suicidal outcomes in the general population.
So while “research has shown that excessive media coverage of suicides of celebrity figures actually has led to an increase in suicide attempts and ideation,” it’s not clear this pertains to fictional portrayals of characters we were only just introduced to.
I suspect, however, that most mental health professionals and researchers who have written about the series haven’t even watched all 13 hours of it. Because most of the series is, naturally, not about Hannah’s death, but about her life.
High School Life
“13 Reasons Why” is, at its heart, a lengthy deconstruction of modern high school memes — the typical teenage challenges faced by high school students in a modern but fictional, middle-class suburbia. The show paints vivid (sometimes complex) characterizations of different people whom you get to know, some pretty well, while walking viewers through a suicide mystery. The adults hang around on the fringes, seemingly clueless about most of the actual lives (and accompanying drama) of their children.
Part of the show is even excruciatingly, painfully self-referential. In one of the early episodes after Hannah’s death, one of her fellow students pulls down suicide prevention signs strewn throughout the school, upset by the empty, hollow sentiments they proclaim. This is how many people — especially teens and young adults — feel about such sentiments after losing someone close to them by suicide. Yet only this series had the honesty to show that frustration and anger.
After watching the whole series, I can’t say I came away from the show feeling like it idealized or glorified suicide. Hannah, the main character, shares poignant, sometimes melodramatic thoughts. There is no single thing that has led her to the decision to die, but a combination of things over the course of a long period of time — just as it can sometimes happen in real life. It’s not clear she suffers from depression, at least not until nearer the end of the series.
Must It Always Be a Talk About Mental Illness?
“…We all let her down. We didn’t let her know that she had another choice.”
“The show actually doesn’t present a viable alternative to suicide,” note the people at the organization, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. “The show doesn’t talk about mental illness or depression, doesn’t name those words.”
I agree that the show didn’t present these kinds of alternatives, nor did it talk about mental illness per se. And there’s a valuable message in there, if only professionals, advocates, and researchers are willing to listen. The show didn’t talk about these things in those specific terms because most teens don’t think or talk about these things using those kinds of terms. Teens don’t think, “My life is over, I should end it… Oh, wait a minute, that’s just the depression talking.” That’s unrealistic and at all not how the suicidal mind thinks.
Instead, the suicidal mind thinks all hope is lost. They are unredeemable. Nobody cares. And if they do care, they are lying. The suicidal mind is tired of trying, tired of the hurt, the pain, the seeming endlessness of it all. That’s how the suicidal mind works.
Contrary to some assertions, the series does present a viable alternative to suicide, as it honestly depicts the despair, agony, hopelessness, loneliness, alcoholism, and more of all of the students’ lives. Parents reach out only to be turned away.
Only one student dies; the others also suffer, but have found ways to cope. And I think that’s an important part of the story here. Why does one person not make it, while others find a way to deal with all of the bullshit, events, and loneliness that accompanies growing up as a teenager?
A Choice That Isn’t a Fair Choice
“We all let her down… She took her own life. That was her choice. You, me, everyone on these tapes, we all let her down. We didn’t let her know that she had another choice. Maybe we could’ve saved her life, maybe not”, says Tony, Clay’s friend, at the end of Episode 10.
And in that way, I think the series depicts a realistic, honest representation of some of these challenges, these issues, these questions. Is it painful to imagine, to understand, to realize that each day, teens’ lives are lost to suicide? Yes, but it is also a painful reminder of how much more we need to do in order to reach people how and where they are. That teens and others who struggle with suicide all believe they have a fair, reasonable choice — to die or not to die. But it’s not a fair choice, because the suicidal mind is clouded by emotional reasoning that is troubled and biased.
“13 Reasons Why” has been picked up for a second season. I can understand why, because it is an interesting, engaging show that delves into the lives of modern high school students. And it has gotten us all talking more openly about suicide and sexual assault — something that can only be good if we seek to shed light on these dark areas of life.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255) or text “help me” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Grohol, J. (2018). The Psychology of ’13 Reasons Why,’ Suicide & High School Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 6, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-psychology-of-13-reasons-why-suicide-high-school-life/