Netflix’s '13 Reasons Why' Tackles Teen Suicide, Bullying & Sexual Assault

By Britni de la Cretaz 04/13/17

The controversial teen drama has garnered criticism for the graphic portrayal of its hard-hitting subject matter. 

Hannah Baker in "13 Reasons Why"
Hannah Baker in "13 Reasons Why" Photo via YouTube

[Editor's note: This article contains spoilers]

Netflix’s new series 13 Reasons Why makes its premise clear from the beginning: it’s a show about a teen girl’s decision to end her own life. Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford, makes 13 audio tapes and delivers them to 13 people in her life who played a role in her decision to commit suicide. The show tackles an important topic, but has elicited criticism for the way the difficult issues within it are portrayed.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2015, adolescents and young adults ages 15-24 had a suicide rate of 12.5%—lower than any other age group. It’s estimated that for every completed suicide, there are an average of 25 attempts. Netflix released a video last week discussing the realities of suicide, and explaining how people who are struggling can find support if they are thinking of harming themselves.

“As a society, we tend to shy away from these hard topics and sometimes in cinema we do that too,” said Justin Prentice, who plays Bryce on the show. “I think this [show] is great because it says, ‘no, this is a problem and it needs to be addressed.’”

Jay Asher, author of the novel that the series is based on, said, “The whole issue of suicide is an uncomfortable thing to talk about, but it happens. And so we have to talk about it. It’s dangerous not to talk about it.” 

13 Reasons has attracted criticism not because it addresses the issue of suicide—but how the show does it. For many people, including suicide survivors themselves, the show has been incredibly triggering. The imagery of Hannah’s suicide is graphic, but the decision to show her death was an intentional one.

“We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted to be very clear that there is nothing … worthwhile about suicide," Executive Producer Brian Yorkey explained. Kate Walsh, who plays Hannah’s mother, said it was important that they honor people who have gone through this; they wanted to make sure they paid tribute to people who have lost loved ones to suicide.

The show also made the decision to show scenes where two girls, including Hannah, are raped. Prentice said he worked hard to get it right, and that he “did a lot research … met with several psychologists, people who have had one-on-one conversations with people who have either been victims of sexual assault or have themselves committed sexual assault” to prepare for the role. But that's also in line with the creators’ decision not to shy away from difficult scenes or dark themes—they say it’s what makes the show real and relatable, particularly to the teens that are the target audience.

Ultimately, the creators of the show hope that 13 Reasons will help people. “It’s important for the viewers to see that there is often a lot of collateral damage when someone dies and the person contemplating suicide might not realize how much their death will affect people that they love and that they didn’t want to hurt,” says Dr. Rona Hu, a psychiatrist at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Selena Gomez, a producer on the show, stresses that “it’s absolutely treatable; anxiety is, depression is.” She says there is no shame in admitting that you need help. Gomez knows this all too well. Last year, she checked herself into rehab when she was struggling with her mental health.

“The minute you talk to someone about it, it gets easier,” says Langford. “And know there is life beyond what you’re feeling at the moment.”

People who are struggling can go to for resources.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) offers a free handbook for people who have attempted suicide. Get it here.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.