22 September 2021 01:15 AM

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HARSHITA CHHATLANI & TANYA RANJAN | 3 JUNE, 2018

How ‘13 Reasons Why’ Glorifies And Trivialises Suicide

The second season of the show was recently released by Netflix


A few weeks ago, Netflix released the second season of the popular teenage high school drama, 13 Reasons Why. The show got mixed reviews after the first season was released last year. Backed by international singer, Selena Gomez, it claimed to address issues of mental health in teenage students.

Recently, the premiere party for the second season was cancelled in the wake of the Santa Fe school shooting, with concern being raised that it might be insensitive. When the release date of the first season of the show was announced, it sounded like a good initiative- talking about mental health at a time when -- despite the prevalence of depression and other mental illnesses -- the issue wasn’t adequately talked about. The show follows the story of Hannah Baker, who leaves 13 tapes distributed to several of her classmates, explaining the reasons that led to her ending her life.

“What I think is that they give a wrong idea about depression or suicidal ideation because if you go to see, I don’t think she had any symptoms of depressions apart from being suicidal. There’s also the whole thing where it’s like everyone around a person with issues is to be blamed. Yes, what you do does have an impact but they also show unhealthy ways to deal with it. If you’re going to act like your show is a big step for mental health, you have to show what the alternative can be. What they’re doing is just triggering people and leaving it at that”, says Aiswarya Menon, a student pursuing Master’s in Psychology from Nowrosji Wadia College, Pune.

“When you hear so much about a show related to something we go through or see on a frequent basis, you have certain expectations which I personally feel the show didn’t do justice to. From the first episode itself, I was looking for some way where they are talking and showing how the person is dealing with it. After a point, it just felt too commercialized to be honest”, added Priyanka Patel, a student from Bangalore.

Although Selena Gomez came out to back the show saying that she wanted to adapt the show to help people, “because suicide should never be an option”, it still did not sit well with most of the viewers as well as mental health professionals. “I just started watching the first season and I am halfway through it. I haven’t personally suffered from a mental illness but I must say that the show, with its intense portrayal of certain things, can be very triggering for someone who has faced similar issues. I also feel that the show may go on to incite feelings of suicidal tendencies”, stated Seraj Ali, a student from New Delhi.

Adding fuel to the fire were the memes that came up with the “welcome to your tape” references, citing to the tapes that the main character left before ending her life.

“The memes definitely trivialize the issue. They make it seem like mental illness is some sort of a joke”, says Gauri Ratnam, a Master’s student from Pune.

“I feel like the memes totally miss the point the show tried to make even if it made any. Even without the memes, as a person who is suffering from mental illness, I felt the show totally portrayed it in a manner which is more triggering than helping spread awareness. You don’t always need trauma to experience mental illness. The show focuses on a very one-dimensional aspect of mental illness. It’s not always about wanting to kill oneself. I feel suicide and the rape has been used for shock value and entertainment purposes rather than actually address such issues. It’s obvious that they can’t cover all of it. But I feel that they have addressed none of it. The trigger warnings have only been added after the backlash received by people, so most of the damage has already been done. I didn’t even want to continue with the second season.”, stated Meghna Bakshi, a third year student from Bangalore.

On seeking the opinion of a mental health professional, Shevaun DeCosta, a counselling psychologist said, “I don’t think the show has been helpful in addressing mental health because it fails to accurately portray mental illness. It starts of by implying that bullying leads to suicide.

However, no one factor leads to suicide. It offers very little insight into the psychology of suicide. The makers of the show should’ve focused on Hannah’s (he protagonist) past and all the factors that made her susceptible to commiting suicide. I definitely think the show can push somebody off the edge to actually commit suicide.” She further stated, “At every point I felt like the show glorified suicide. It certainly trivialises the brevity of suicide. The show portrays the idea that a lot of thought goes into a suicide attempt - like, so much thought that one would have the time to make tapes about all of the ways that they have felt wronged.”

“I felt the show focused solely on suicide. The show didn’t mention words like mental illness or depression, at least not till the end (where there’s some clarity) However the advantage is that the show doesn’t talk about such terms because teens don’t think of it in those terms. For example they don’t think : “my life is over but oh wait that’s the depression talking”. The suicidal mind thinks all hope is lost. They are unredeemable and that nobody actually cares,” said Shevaun, emphasising on the show’s lack of consideration for people going through mental disorders.

There have been multiple cases of imitation suicide after the first season aired. A 23-year-old Peruvian man took his life and left behind tapes for people in his life, just like in the Netflix hit show. During an investigation, police found a goodbye note to someone named Claudio and another note with instructions to deliver tapes that he'd recorded on his computer, according to the local newspaper.

“It is much too common for the media to exploit stories of the abused for profit. Sensationalising the very real struggle that people face for views is depraved. If it's really about creating awareness and starting conversation, then why is it not also bringing comfort to those who experience mental illness. Why is it that when the creators of the show spoke with mental health professionals (that was a good move) and were advised against graphic depictions of sexual violence and suicide that they ignored it (here is the problem)” said Ardra Narayan, a spoken word poet based in Bangalore.

When asked to other people going through mental disorders about the show, they explained who they refrained from watching it because it may trigger them for the worse.

“The protagonist seems to find reasons to die. And every time one reason is shown. Mono casualty can lead to copycat suicides. Further, She seems to blame others for her act. Again, while there maybe external factors, the show depicts it like she had no choice but die by suicide. there’s no reason to show that suicide scene and nobody needs to know the details. the show never ever shows there’s help available and shows no way to seek help” said Nelson Vinod, founder of Suicide Prevention India Foundation.

The concerns around the show’s depiction of mental health are not new. Soon after the release of the first season, many mental health professionals as well as NGOs said the show was too graphic and demanded that the show put in content warnings for people susceptible to mental health issues.

“There is a great concern I have that young people are going to over identify with Hannah in the series and we actually may see more suicides as a result of this.”, said Dan Reidenberg, the executive director for Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, back in April 2017.

With the release of the first season, social media was filled with posts and tweets criticizing the show for glamorizing something as grave as suicide and triggering people who were suffering from a mental illness.

The portrayal of a mental disorder in the mainstream media through a show that essentially caters to the young adult generation, which is easily influenced should be well curated and thought through. If a show triggers the exact audience it claims to represent, is it really for the cause?
 

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