“It was so easy for her, why can’t it be that easy for me? I think I’m going to try it her way, you know run a bath and cut my wrists.” This was the conversation about 13 reasons why with a young person which prompted Helen Cutteridge (yes, I know), Youthscape’s emotional wellbeing (self-harm) lead, to watch the series. In an article for Selfharm UK she said: “Parents [and youth workers] need to watch this. If you want a glimpse into the lives of teenagers this is it. The stories ring true for so many young people that I’ve worked with. These are young people’s experiences. Sometimes as adults we can be dismissive of the culture that our young people are living in and we shouldn’t be; it’s harder for young people now than it has been before. And as adults we need to sit up and listen to the stories being told, and be willing to have the conversation with our children and young people about these things.”
So clearly there is enough within the show to warrant watching, but what of those young people who struggle with these issues, could it be ‘triggering’ for them, or is it worth it in order to talk about these issues? In a statement, founder of To Write Love on Her Arms, an American non-profit seeking to raise awareness and remove the stigma surrounding self-harm, Jamie Tworkowski said: “If you struggle or have struggled with self-injury or thoughts of suicide, we would encourage you not to watch 13 reasons why. We’ve heard from many people who have chosen to avoid the show, and we applaud these folks who are choosing to prioritize their own recovery. We know this is a unique moment in pop culture, with so many people talking about 13 reasons why. You are certainly more important than pop culture, and we will always encourage you to put your recovery first. While we wish that the creators of 13 reasons why would have been more careful in how they chose to tell the story, we are thankful for the good that is coming as a result of this story being told. We’re glad people are talking about mental health and suicide.”
Helen Cutteridge agreed that the show wasn’t for everyone, and commented that the heightened reality of the show was not just unhelpful and ‘triggering’ but actually gave false impressions: “Hannah’s story is not realistic. While the things that happen are things that happen to teenagers across the world, rarely would it all happen to one person. At no point in the story does Hannah take responsibility for her own story, she blames everyone else for what happens to her. At any point in the show Hannah could have asked for real help. Instead she waits until the very end and the show gives a poor depiction of what help can look like. I know this because I give help every day, and I don’t let suicidal young people walk out of my room without a follow-up; I listen, as do countless other youth workers, teachers, parents, counsellors and online support. Hannah’s final words were: ‘Some of you cared, none of you cared enough. Neither did I. Goodbye.’ And this just isn’t true, Hannah didn’t give people the option to care and she pushed away the ones that did. We must teach people to take responsibility for their actions, and not blame others. We must teach people that suicide shouldn’t be the answer and that there is good support out there for them.”
The show’s director, Nic Sheff, who has previously attempted to commit suicide, defended the show’s choice to show the suicide, saying: “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. It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all.” It’s also worth noting that Netflix defended the show by saying it was given an 18 certificate, but this is hard to police online, and a show obviously about teenagers is much more likely to appeal to young people than it is adults. In fact, it’s literally suggested on Netflix as a ‘US teen TV programme’.
The danger with warning people away from watching shows that tackle mental health issues, such as 13 reasons why, is that people get accused of mollycoddling; as if trigger-warnings are creating a vulnerable, sensitive generation; as if the current mental health crisis is purely because people are aware of depression for the first time. It’s hard to pin down exactly what agenda is at play here, but it’s important to acknowledge that for some reason, people seem desperate to obfuscate the debate by blaming the conversation around mental health for its sudden ‘popularity’. This, obviously, is not the case. Anyone working with children and young people can see that the toxic mix of exam pressure, social media and all the other teenage angst which already existed has created a perfect storm of stress, anxiety and depression. 13 reasons why acknowledges the dangers of the world young people exist in. It’s not perfect, in fact at times, it’s flat out wrong and dangerous, but the truths at the heart of it are important and worth thoughtfully and responsibly engaging with.