What We Can Learn from 13 Reasons Why

Since its Netflix debut in early 2017, 13 Reasons Why has sparked a considerable back-and-forth about mental health, suicide, and major media depictions of these topics. The show’s first season spanned 13 episodes which chronicled events leading to, and unfolding after, a high school student dies by suicide.

The show was polarizing, with some praising it as an unblinking and complex portrayal of heavy topics, and others criticizing it as a contrived and reckless exploitation of them. The second season, which premiered last week, seems to have tipped public opinion towards the latter view. Beyond stylistic and narrative grievances, 13 Reasons’ handling of sensitive subject matter has been questioned. The show was forced to add trigger warnings after public outcry over a lack thereof, and season two has upped the ante considerably, with a taped disclaimer featuring the show’s main actors and actresses.

But according to critics, the disclaimers and content warnings might not be enough. The pivotal issue for mental health groups across the world lies in the first season’s depiction of suicide, which they say did not adhere to recommended guidelines on discussing and depicting suicide in media. The ramifications of this skirting of best-practices are broad, and many international mental health advocacy bodies voiced concerns that the show’s sensationalized depiction of suicide could trigger ‘copycat’ suicides. A set of considerations put forth by America’s National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) concluded that exposing at-risk youth to 13 Reasons Why could lead them to “romanticize” suicide.


While 13 Reasons Why’s depictions of suicide are ethically-questionable at best, the net worth of the conversations sparked by the show might be its redeeming factor. These discussions have stressed that imagery, language, and other minutiae can have critical effects on how media depictions of suicide can impact consumers, and thanks to the popularity of both the series and the heated discourse around it, folks around the globe are getting a primer in how to think and talk about mental illness and suicide from a risk-reduction standpoint. Here are four ways to exercise sensitivity and care when discussing suicide.


Don’t Sensationalize

Erase sensationalist language or imagery from your discussions. In the case of 13 Reasons Why, suicide was sensationalized by portraying a narrative of redemption and justice for the person that killed themself. This suggests resolution and even victory for those contemplating suicide. Try to refrain from discussing how the person died—studies show that this can contribute to suicide contagion, a term that describes an increased risk of suicide in others based on exposure to certain triggers.


Change Your Language

This is often subtle, but serious nonetheless: it’s important to remember to exercise a certain amount restraint when discussing a case of suicide. For example, phrasing it as ‘committed suicide’ stems from when suicide used to be a crime, and thus stigmatizes it. Instead, it’s recommended that we describe it as ‘died by suicide.’ The difference is small but important; removing unnecessary or inaccurate language reduces miscommunication and removes the possibility of stigmatizing associations (such as associating suicide with crime). The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention offers some helpful tips on this subject.


Focus on Warning Signs and Preventability

Accounts that depict suicide as sudden or unexpected often run the risk of ignoring observable warning signs, many of which are evident in cases where suicide is preventable. These are well-documented, so check into local resource centres for specifics on your region, but general warning signs include expressions of hopelessness or having no reason to live, reckless behaviour, increased isolation and withdrawn behaviour, and severe mood swings. For more information, consult Beyondblue for reading on possible suicidal behaviour.


Talk About It

NASP points out that it’s a myth that discussing suicide suggests the idea to individuals. Rather, talking with someone about how they feel and expressing concern for their welfare can be a critical first step in helping them seek help if they have suicidal ideations. Informed dialogue, when structured properly and sensitively, is an important part of suicide prevention. Don’t hesitate to reach out to someone you might be worried about. This could be as simple as saying, “Are you feeling okay?” or “I am here for you if you want to talk.” Your outreach could assist them in addressing their feelings.

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