How ’13 Reasons Why’ stacks up against diagnosed mental illness

‘You are not alone’

PSA: Everyone’s experience with mental illness is different. I am writing this article based off of my experiences with mental illness, and how they relate to the show. Additionally, this should serve as a warning for those that may be triggered by discussion of sexual violence, suicide, and self-harm.

With the new season of “13 Reasons Why” coming to Netflix, it’s important to discuss the effect that the first season had on the U.S. This Netflix adaptation of the 2007 Young Adult novel by Jay Asher has become a massive hit since its debut on March 31. For those of you that haven’t watched it, it’s a chronicle revolving around high school student Hannah Baker, as she relays her story of the events she experienced before taking her life. She creates tapes for several classmates and one faculty member, all of whom have at least one tape dedicated to them.

For some background on me: I am a survivor of multiple rapes, assaults, and relationship violence. I struggle with several mental illnesses, though I won’t mention the specifics. I have been hospitalized for suicidal ideation, and I have self-harmed. Additionally, I am an activist for both mental health awareness and sexual assault awareness, as well as other things.

Hannah Baker, the show’s protagonist

It brings attention to the serious problem of suicide in the United States

Watching this show – seeing Hannah Baker go through what she went through – was quite traumatizing for me in many respects. As I mentioned above, I’ve been hospitalized for mental health reasons before; I recognize that this show doesn’t really address the presence of depression in Hannah, leading up to her completed suicide. It’s literally a catalog of events – ways that her peers have mistreated her. While this might be fodder for someone’s depression to become worse, the lack of explicit discussion about mental illness is quite disturbing.

It shows how the way one might treat a peer can have a huge effect on their self-esteem.

Especially if the person being bullied has social anxiety, which is already severely misunderstood in our society. I personally struggle from social anxiety, and it has a sick, symbiotic relationship with depression. The two feed into each other in a positive feedback pattern. Whether or not Hannah has social anxiety, we don’t know, but this again reaffirms the need for the audience to experience more of Hannah’s psychology.

It displays the sexism and misogyny that is rampant in American societal culture.

Myself and many friends of mine have experienced shame for their choices regarding their body. I have been degraded for choosing not to sleep with men that wanted to sleep with me. I can’t explain where that rationale comes from.

It shows the toxicity of victim-blaming.

Victim-blaming is a very internal experience, and unfortunately has been externalized too. Some phrases that are prime examples of victim-blaming include, “What were you wearing?”, “Were you drinking/doing drugs?”. “Did you kiss him/have sex with him before?”, as if consenting to previous sexual activity is a carte blanche for future sexual encounters.

I’ve experienced internal victim-blaming, directed at myself. Thankfully, never the external type.

The scene with the razor blades was triggering, and truly unnecessary. 

I have self-harmed by means of cutting, but never with intent to end my life. I couldn’t bring myself to watch this scene, because it was too graphic and much too personal. I’ve struggled with occasional desires to self-harm since the hospital, but it wasn’t nearly as often as when I was in my deep depression.

There should have been a notice about sexual assault when Jessica tries to get Justin to sleep with her.

Jessica trying to coerce her partner into sexual activity

There is no actual discussion of mental illness in the show itself. 

Most of this show is built on the stereotypical notion that, once you’ve killed yourself/died, others will suddenly care about your memory and will look back on you fondly as a person they once knew. The reason I assert this? Because it’s the entire premise of the show. Hannah leaves behind these 13 tapes, and suddenly the entire school cares about her memory and knows who she is. This is an extremely unhealthy mindset to feed into, and has the potential to promote suicidal ideation by teenagers that think it will make them important.

The plot of this show is incredibly complex, and I personally commend the writers and production staff for taking on such a serious project. There’s plenty of emphasis on the non-bullying message, but none whatsoever on how mental illness works, and how it’s different for everyone.

The 12 people that personally wronged Hannah (Clay really isn’t one of them) all claim that they thought she was cool, and nice, or that they had no idea she was struggling so much. When, frankly, they all had a part to play in it.

People suddenly care after she’s dead? Nice.

There is no reassuring message for victims of sexual assault/relationship violence/mental illness. Survivors of suicide, rape, and other forms of abuse may be triggered by the material in the show, and there’s no silver lining to be seen. 

Survivors watching the program might feel like they need to keep their story to themselves, because nobody will understand/they asked for it/they should’ve protected themselves. For God’s sake, the guidance counselor of the school victim-blamed Hannah after she came to him describing her rape.

There are a myriad of toxic thoughts that circulate throughout a survivor’s head days, months, or years after an assault. They may not recognize the assault for what it was until much later. This scene with Mr. Porter has the dangerous potential to reaffirm said toxic thoughts; this should be accounted for by the producers of the show, and they should make changes in this coming season accordingly.

Classic example of victim-shaming.

This scene was incredibly disturbing.

I recognize that there’s a hidden message here with regard to Mr. Porter being a crappy guidance counselor, but under Title IX, he would have been trained in how to support a survivor. Title IX doesn’t only apply to higher education. This scene is significant, because it precedes Hannah’s completed suicide. That’s why this is so problematic; while there are unhelpful guidance counselors out there in the world, this is a bit much.

Additionally, if 13 Reasons was going to be a show about why Mr. Porter sucks at his job, we should have seen more of that from the beginning.

The writers of this show truly did their homework when it came down to how trauma presents itself – particularly in how Jessica uses alcohol to cope, and how Hannah is extremely numb in her description of the assaults. It’s also worth noting that Hannah had experienced two traumas: secondary as she heard Bryce rape Jessica, and primary from her own rape.

One of the most difficult scenes to watch.

“13 Reasons Why” doesn’t shy away from the stigma of mental illness, or from the taboo topic of sexual assault. There’s risk in every large endeavor, and while I personally don’t agree with many of the production staff’s choices, the show is theirs. I hope that they continue to do their research and accurately portray these issues through their actors.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Hotline. If you or someone you know has experienced an assault, please look at RAINN’s website for more information about sexual assault prevention/support centers in your state.

You’re not alone.

Bucknell University