13 Reasons Why Doesn’t Candy Coat Mental Illness

By Brenna Middleton

Warning: This review contains spoilers for Season 1 of 13 Reasons Why and discusses mental illness and suicide. Discretion is advised.

Did Hannah Baker lie? That’s the big question that keeps coming up on Netflix’s hit 13 Reasons Why. The drama follows Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) as he listens to cassette tapes left behind by his crush Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who recently committed suicide. Hannah dedicated each tape to a classmate that hurt her. Based on that description alone, it’s easy for someone who has never read the original novel by Jay Asher to assume the worst. Twisted suicide-as-revenge melodrama neatly packaged in all the Lifetime movie trappings. Despite my misgivings, I decided to give 13 Reasons Why a shot. I’m so glad I did.

13 Reasons Why is nothing like a Lifetime movie. It feels – dare I say it – real. Perhaps it’s this quality that has attracted so many viewers to the show. But it’s not without its critics. I recently came across a blog post that described the teen drama as “fantasy” and “total BS”. An article by The Washington Post claimed that the show glamourizes suicide. It’s unsurprising that 13 Reasons Why has sparked debate, but I can’t bring myself to agree with the show’s harshest critics. Because I think that they’re missing the point: This is Hannah’s truth, and Hannah’s truth does not have to be everyone’s truth. Can everyone that has ever dealt with mental health issues and suicide attempts empathize with Hannah’s struggle? Certainly not. Mental illness is a complex beast, and not everyone deals with it in the same way. So, to answer my original question: No, Hannah is not lying. She is simply relating some of the worst moments of her life from how she experienced them. The show does let us in on the fact that Hannah isn’t always the most reliable narrator. Zach (Ross Butler) never threw away the letter. It was Hannah that stopped coming to Monet’s, not Jessica (Alisha Boe). But what this reveals more than anything is how easily people become disconnected from one another. Friends stop talking, and small actions are taken as malicious. I would say that disconnection is the central theme of the show.

It’s this feeling of disconnection that drives Hannah to try and form relationships with her classmates. Again and again I found myself becoming frustrated with Hannah. Why did she keep reaching out to people who would only hurt her? Why would she put herself through that? Then it hit me: maybe for Hannah the only thing worse than being hurt again was feeling disconnected from everyone around her. One could argue that Hannah brought negative attention onto herself. She certainly didn’t shy away from confrontation, whether it was calling out Alex (Miles Heizer) in the boy’s locker room or Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) at the school dance. Even Tony (Christian Navarro) admitted he didn’t come to the door when Hannah dropped off the tapes because she was “drama”, something he clearly regrets. Hannah’s “drama”, it seems, was really a fight against indifference.

One of the hardest scenes to watch from 13 Reasons Why was when Hannah made a last-ditch attempt to see the school counsellor, Mr. Porter (Derek Luke). I can say from experience that making the decision to seek help is one of the hardest things to do. Sitting in a polite waiting room with polite receptionists, weighing your options: Are you thinking about hurting yourself or others? Now you have an appointment with a counsellor. Finally, someone who will take you seriously. Right? Right? Wrong. Instead they politely urge you to get over it.

I don’t mean to make it out like they’re all bad. I’m sure there are many wonderful counsellors. But unfortunately that’s not always the case. And I applaud 13 Reasons Why for showing that. Counsellors are not fairy godmothers that will make your problems vanish with a magic wand. They are human beings doing the best they can (hopefully). If you teach young people that seeing a counsellor will make everything better, you are potentially setting them up for a major disappointment. Talking to someone is the first step. To get better they need to fight like hell, even when others let them down. In the aforementioned Washington Post article it was stated that Mr. Porter’s treatment of Hannah sent a horrible message. Why? Because it’s real? Enough with the candy-coating already.

Let’s talk about the suicide scene, which some have criticized for being too graphic. I’ll admit, I was surprised that the show-runners decided to include the moment Hannah ended her life in such detail. The topic of suicide is generally tiptoed around in film or television. Referenced to, but rarely shown. In a Netflix special titled Beyond the Reasons creator Brian Yorkey said, “We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.” Painful to watch, indeed. There is no music in the background, just the sound of the bathwater running. Utterly alone, Hannah climbs in, cuts her wrists, and bleeds out. There is nothing glamourous about it.

Is 13 Reasons Why a perfect show? Of course not. Upon re-watching the series I found the first few episodes a little repetitive in structure. Some of the decisions made by the protagonists didn’t always sit well, like when Clay took that photo of Tyler (Devin Druid). But perhaps that was the point. It’s hard to deny the show’s impact. Each tape buries a little deeper under your skin, and – most importantly – makes you think.

 

Photo source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2017/04/09/13-reasons-why-is-netflixs-best-new-show-in-years/#603262806560

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