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13 Reasons Why Season 1 Review - Revisiting the Controversy

By Ziggie

Forewarning: While I will do my best to omit graphic depictions of suicide, it’s impossible to discuss this show without mentioning the subject of suicide. If you are someone who is sensitive to the discussion surrounding this topic this may not be the best blog to read, and that’s okay. Taking care of your own mental health should be your highest priority.

The Show 13 Reasons Why is a hit series currently airing its final season on Netflix. 13 Reasons Why is adapted from the 2007 novel written by Jay Asher with the same namesake as the Netflix series. The show’s central premise follows the aftermath of the suicide of a young teen named Hannah Baker, who leaves behind 13 cryptic cassette tapes detailing reasons for her demise.
Clay Jenson, a close friend of Hannah’s, receives those tapes and, throughout the first season, attempts to piece together what drove his friend to an irreversible end. When 13 Reasons Why first debuted, there was an outcry from mental health professionals and those who struggle with mental illnesses because the show romanticized suicidal ideation from their perspective. As someone who didn’t watch the series until much later, I wanted to assess it from my perspective as a Certified Peer Specialist. Was the controversy justified, or are their other elements and lessons one can take from the show? This month I would like to dive in and share my thoughts and opinions on this popular Netflix drama.

Hannah Baker is a sophomore in Highschool who has just arrived in a new town. Hannah makes an early friend with a girl named Kat, who will be moving at the start of the school year, so she throws one last party before leaving. Baker attends this party in hopes of meeting friends so she won’t be alone at the start of the school year. At this get-together, we’re introduced to a cast of characters that will shape future plotlines. The setting presented by a young student attending a party is realistic. I think we all can relate to Hannah when it comes to making new friends. Moving to a new place can be very difficult for a young teen; it was for me when I moved to a rural area from the city. In the first few moments of the very first episode, I think it does a great job of setting up the framework and characters that will influence later events.

Clay Jensen is the main character in season 1. After Hannah tragically ends her life, Clay receives tapes that reveal why Hannah did what she did. Jensen struggles significantly with Hannah’s death throughout the show. After he finishes listening to each tape, he confronts the character who is mentioned on those recordings. I understand that the show is a drama. Still, they could have presented more opportunities for Jensen to talk with a trusted adult about the cassettes
instead of trying to solve everything independently.

One element that 13 Reasons Why depicts accurately is the lack of mental health resources at a school. The principal seems more concerned with a school’s image than the children’s mental health welfare. The school therapist is neglectful or overwhelmed by their caseload and can’t attend to the most vulnerable teenagers who need assistance. As someone who has worked in the public school system, providing mental health resources and education to teachers and kids, many schools don’t have the funding to offer mental health resources to children adequately. While I will admit more schools are taking note of this and adding more mental health professionals, it’s still a slow transition.

13 Reasons Why is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it depicts how complicated teenagers’ lives can be. That a mental health crisis isn’t based on one single event, but several of them layered on top of one another, pushing a kid to their limits. That is reaching out for help can be challenging at times. Hannah’s suicide is tragic, at almost every turn she’s abandoned by former friends along with other terrible incidents that happen to her.

On the other hand, presenting suicide as the ultimate revenge by creating 13 tapes is not any type of premise that I can support. Hurting yourself should never be the answer, seeking help, and a mental health professional should be the priority. I wouldn’t recommend a young teen watch this without an adult’s approval. They should take the time to discuss what they watched after an episode is over with said teen.

We’ve come a long way from mental illness being presented as if someone with a condition is inherently dangerous. Yet, I’m not sure if mental health’s romanticizing is the right way to go about it either. 13 Reasons Why is a drama that touches on suicide. I think it was a great conversation starter for how mental health should be discussed in the broader narrative.

If you’ve seen this show, what are your thoughts about it?

I’d love to hear from you.