Romanticising suicide, showcasing graphic scenes and flippant considerations of mental health concerns; Elena Bjørn looks at the controversies surrounding Netflix’s hit show, 13 Reasons Why, following confirmation of a second season.

The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has received huge amounts of press since its hotly-anticipated release in March. The show is a drama about the suicide of a teenage girl named Hannah who leaves behind a set of cassette tapes addressed to each of the people she considers responsible for her death. For the most part, the narrative is centred around her classmate, Clay, who had a crush on Hannah, and also suffers from social anxiety.

The series was rated 18, but was arguably targeted at young adults and has been undeniably popular in that demographic. Accordingly, the content has sparked concerns from mental health groups, educators and parents. So, what makes 13 Reasons Why so controversial, and did it deserve the criticism?

Please note that there are plot spoilers ahead, as well as discussion of graphic scenes.

There are a few aspects of the show which have caused upset, namely the graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide. A now-viral Tumblr post claims that the show runners visited an unnamed town in the US where a number of teenage suicides happened in a short space of time, researching for the show, and were advised not to show Hannah’s method of suicide, or her death. This advice is echoed by mental health organisations, and multiple studies which show that graphic depiction or description of suicide contribute to a phenomenon known as “suicide contagion”, otherwise known as copycat suicides. This is particularly prevalent in groups of teenagers. The only reason to go against the warning of both professionals and concerned parties alike was for dramatic effect, and to many this trade-off was inexcusable.

The episode showing Hannah’s suicide was preceded by a trigger warning, which would have been a helpful safety measure for many viewers. In fact you could reasonably argue that the trigger warning was enough of a signpost to justify the offending scene, and I’d be inclined to agree if similar warnings had preceded other episodes with graphic scenes and content. Unfortunately it was only used on a single episode, when others also showed numerous sexual assaults, as well as Hannah appearing as a vision to Clay, bleeding from the wrists and screaming. Arguably these scenes were equally, if not more, traumatic than the episode which came with prior warning. It can only be assumed that the absence of caution was to avoid tipping off the viewer as to future plot developments and preserve the shock factor of the appearance of Hannah’s ghost. Again, it seems that the show runners have prioritised drama over the safety of their target audience.

Another criticism levelled against 13 Reasons Why is that, for a show with multiple mentally ill characters, mental illness is barely touched upon. Instead, Hannah’s death is presented as a logical and unavoidable solution to a series of problems, as outlined in her cassette-tape-suicide-note. The idea of Hannah suffering from depression is never mentioned; instead blame is laid at the feet of her friends and enemies alike. The character of Clay is shown having panic attacks and suffering from other symptoms of some kind of anxiety disorder, but a diagnosis is never discussed, and his troubles are never expanded upon. In its place, he is given a bottle of prescription pills by his mother, with previous doctor’s visits simply alluded to.

Admittedly it’s not the responsibility of entertainers to educate, but given that their source material was a short novel and the series covered around 13 hours, it’s a shame that more attention wasn’t paid to mental illness. Personally, I think some unnecessary scenes could have been shortened or removed altogether to make room for some discourse on depression, anxiety disorders and the psychological factors of suicide ideation. This might have done something to counter some of the outrage and disappointment viewers have felt.

With 13 Reasons Why now confirmed for a second season, we can only hope that the many analyses of the show, by experts, critics and viewers might be taken on board. As the first season was based on a novel without a sequel, the writers will have infinite options for developing the script. Time will only tell whether season two will be more responsible than season one.