‘13 Reasons Why’ should focus on mental health, not love

The Netflix original series “13 Reasons Why” details the story of Hannah Baker through listening to tapes she recorded before her suicide. It lacks in its discussion of mental health and resources. / Courtesy of Angie Bowen via Flickr

“13 Reasons Why,” a continuation of well-made Netflix original shows, brings the popular book to life. It has decent acting, a compelling if not gimmicky narrative and, for the most part, it succeeds in avoiding the more cringe-worthy dialogue often found in the young adult television genre.

For a program aimed at teens that tackles issues so often ignored or glossed over by other mainstream productions, “13 Reasons” does not shy away from controversy. In fact, the show runs headfirst into more easily contested subject matter, those topics that are normally mentioned in passing to then be tucked away and forgotten about before it can do any damage. Yet, despite having 13 hour-long episodes and 13 chances to convince me that the team behind the Netflix program understood the task ahead of them and the importance of creating a teen-centric show that tackles issues of mental health and depression, “13 Reasons Why” left me cold. But mostly angry.

Like a lot of people my age, I read the novel “Thirteen Reasons Why” (on which the 2017 Netflix series is based) when I was in eighth grade. I’ll admit, I don’t remember very much. I remember liking it, and I believe I was moved by it, though I may not have fully understood why Mostly I remember the gimmick, and it is an effective one.

Both the novel and television show follow the same basic plot, in which one day Clay Jensen, a shy and quiet high school student, finds a shoebox full of cassette tapes left at his doorstep. Each tape contains a recording from Clay’s classmate, Hannah Baker, detailing the 13 reasons why she decided to take her own life. Each reason takes the form of a person, and before her death, Hannah left strict instructions that the tapes must be passed along and listened to in full by each person she names.

While it might seem odd to critique the novel since the show shares much of the same basic plot structure, this is exactly the source of one of the series’ major problems. While Hannah herself narrates the tapes, in the end, it is not about her. Her suicide is simply a vehicle to delve into the complicated and messy lives of her classmates, who all get to tell her story. While on the one hand this makes for interesting and somewhat innovative television—and ”13 Reasons” has some of the most fully-realized high school characters I’ve seen in a long time—it also misses the point. In a show about a young girl’s suicide, she is entirely forgotten. The reasons are more important than Hannah herself, and as she is left behind, so are conversations regarding mental health that are necessary to making a show like this work (in all thirteen episodes I don’t recall any). Mental health cannot be left out of the equation, and pretending that “if we were all just nicer to one another no one would be depressed” only further harms young adults already struggling for someone to understand what is going on in their head.

Furthermore, when “13 Reasons” decides to tackle these serious issues, it is entirely for shock value. My high school health class ran under the “scared straight” rule. Instead of educating us on a topic, we would slog through countless images of gruesome STD slides or watch “The Miracle of Life” in full. Watching “13 Reasons,” I couldn’t help but think the creators of the show were following this tactic.

In addition to a series of exceedingly explicit scenes depicting violent sexual assault, the scene that perhaps defines the issue is that of Hannah’s suicide, shown in full over three excruciating minutes. It is unnecessarily detailed, gruesome and impossible to watch. It goes beyond capturing the emotions of a scene and becomes something far more sinister and utterly pointless. I ask myself, who is the audience? What purpose does this scene serve? We as an audience know what happens and understand how Hannah’s story will end. All the scene does is add more shock to an already-shocking situation. Furthermore, for those whom the show claims it wishes to help, the scene is entirely alienating and could very well constitute a serious triggering incident for practically anyone who suffers with depression or has had thoughts of suicide.

Hannah Baker isn’t a person as far as the show in concerned, she is a trope. What could have been a complex character struggling with mental health in compelling and innovative new ways is instead thrown by the wayside in order to abide by the standard gorgeous, witty-with-a-dark-side, YA heroine.

Her relationship with Clay shows it best. Throughout the series, Clay is distraught, wracking his brain trying to understand why he is on these tapes. The writers paint Clay as a pretty nice guy, and we find out over the course of the series that Clay and Hannah in fact had feelings for each other and once got together, before a series of (convoluted) events forced them apart. Then, in the biggest cop-out in history, it turns out that Clay isn’t a “reason why.” In fact, he was the only person on the tapes who actually made Hannah feel good about herself and think that life was worth living.

All she needed was saving, which is a problematic relationship dynamic to show to young audiences. Rather, it should focus on mental health and not the love-conquers-all trope.

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