It is clear, at least to me and to a growing number of psychologists and mental health experts, that 13 Reasons Why will lead to more suicide, not less. Already, we are hearing warnings from various experts on teen suicide, and we are likely to see a rash of suicide attempts throughout the country.
I can’t believe I’m writing this post.
First, because I am in no way recommending the new Netflix teen drama 13 Reasons Why. From beginning to end, the show is saturated in sin, stark and unrelenting—incessant swearing, physical violence, sexual assault, drug use, alcohol abuse, stalking, voyeurism, pornography, bullying, sexual experimentation, rape, verbal abuse of the vilest variety, and a graphic depiction of suicide. “Trigger warnings” don’t do the show justice. Please do not misconstrue my writing about this show as a recommendation for anyone—adult or child—to watch.
Second, because the subject of this show is painfully personal to me. My best friend growing up and next-door-neighbor for several years killed himself when we were 16. I say “killed himself” here because verbs like “took” or “ended” his life soften the blow in ways that do not do justice to the deed. There may be other places where I would write or speak with softer language, but not here, not when I want to warn about a show that depicts suicide in a destructive manner.
Teenage suicide is not a statistic to me. It isn’t something that happened to an acquaintance once upon a time. I never joined in the superficial outpouring of grief for a “fallen classmate” the way some of the students do in 13 Reasons Why. The emotions I feel after 20 years are still profound. My friend’s decision snatched me out of the innocence of childhood and set me face-to-face with the dragon of death in all its ferociousness.
Why write about 13 Reasons Why then? Because several readers asked me to address it, and my middle-school son had friends who were talking about it at school and church. As a writer and a pastor, I feel compelled to step into this space and to issue the strongest warning I can muster about this series. There is a reason why New Zealand has banned anyone younger than 18 from watching the show without a parent, and why Canadian schools are banning students from even discussing the show.
13 Reasons Why is deceptive and destructive.
A Story Arc Toward Suicide
To be fair, it is clear that the people who made this series wanted to convince teenage viewers that actions have consequences, that bullying can hurt others and lead to despair. The show wants people to take certain sins seriously: the objectification of young women, the invasion of privacy, sexual assault and the temptation to cover it up, as well as failing to believe the victim of rape. In order to heighten the seriousness of these sins, 13 Reasons Why shocks the viewer with its gruesome display of high school depravity, and the many forms of guilt and shame that arise in a social media-saturated, sexual revolution-fueled society. When the show delves occasionally into sermonizing, it becomes clear that the writers want young viewers to treat others with respect.
But it is also clear, at least to me and to a growing number of psychologists and mental health experts, that 13 Reasons Why will lead to more suicide, not less. Already, we are hearing warnings from various experts on teen suicide, and we are likely to see a rash of suicide attempts throughout the country.
I am not surprised. 13 Reasons Why is a hopeless show whose story arc climaxes with suicide. Viewers who resonate with the main character, Hannah, will imagine their own journey as moving inexorably to the grave, enticed by a fantasy of revenge against those who’ve disappointed them. In trying to fight bullying, this show lifts up suicide. It gives the main character a noble way out, a martyrdom of sorts, a tragic but glamorous finale (displayed in graphic detail) that goes against virtually every best practice for addressing suicide responsibly.
I cannot overstate how destructive this message is.