Mental Illness: Did "13 Reasons Why" Get it Right?

    Over a year has passed since the first season of the teen suicide drama 13 Reasons Why, produced by Selena Gomez and based on Jay Asher’s best-selling novel of the same name, which was released on Netflix.  Dealing with sensitive themes such as suicide, mental illness, and the impact of bullying, the show has understandably garnered quite a bit of criticism since its initial release. Over the last few months, Netflix’s decision to produce a second season has proven equally controversial.

    13 Reasons Why’s first season details the suicide of California high school student Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). The plot of this series revolves around the contents of thirteen tapes left behind by Hannah Baker, which were addressed to classmates who she believed contributed to her decision to end her own life. While popular with its youthful target audience, the show’s premise has drawn harsh criticism from school counselors and mental health professionals; many of whom have expressed concern over its inaccurate representation of mental illness and glorification of suicide and self-harm. A number of psychiatrists have gone so far as to correlate this series to an increase in student suicides. Others have also denounced the explicit nature of the series, which depicts Baker’s violent death in graphic (and perhaps unnecessary) detail.  Some have also commented on 13 Reason Why’s failure to adhere to the World Health Organization’s guidelines for suicide depiction, which educates media professionals on how to deal with suicide-related content in a manner that is respectful and non-provoking for those who struggle with depression and similar mental illnesses.  With this much baggage attached to the series’ debut season, it is no wonder why critics and mental health professionals alike have awaited the release of the second with bated-and somewhat anxious breath.

    Released May 18th, season two picks up five months after the initial aftermath of Hannah’s suicide and follows the story of her mother (played by Kate Walsh)’s lawsuit against the administration of her daughter’s high school, which she believes played a crucial role in the girl’s death.  Each episode centers around one of the twelve students mentioned in Hannah’s tapes as they testify in court; rehashing the details of her suicide in a manner that contributes little to the season’s plot, but also offers quite a bit of support for the arguments of those who believe the show has a tendency to romanticize suicide and mental illness. Without the framework of Hannah’s tapes to guide it, it often feels as though season two has little left to contribute to the show’s original exploration of suicide and the repercussions of bullying; leading many critics to slam it as nothing more than Netflix’s lazy attempt to drum up the same sort of hype and controversy that surrounded the series’ first thirteen episodes.

    That being said, season two is not entirely without its merits. One subplot deals with protagonist Clay Jensen (played by Dylan Minnette)’s obsession with avenging Hannah and bringing rapist football player Bryce Walker (played by Justin Prentice) to justice.  By delving into Bryce’s character and remaining conscious of the privilege that wealthy, athletic Caucasian males tend to receive in America’s criminal justice system, Thirteen Reasons Why attempts to speak- albeit in its clumsy, often problematic way- to a culture transformed by the growing #MeToo movement.  It picks apart rape-culture and the tendency to victim-blame in cases of sexual assault, forcing the viewer to watch as the testimonies of Hannah’s peers transform her from an ill, unstable teenage girl in need of intervention, into a seductress who virtually brought her suffering upon herself.

    There are pros and cons to 13 Reason Why’s second season, both on a Christian and a secular level.  In many ways, the show has continued to prove itself dangerous to those who suffer from suicidal thoughts or mental disorders- with season two’s numerous depictions of sexual assault and self-harm, it is intense even for adult viewers, let alone the teenagers who make up the series’ primary audience. There are times when the narrative seems to paint Hannah as a hero specifically because of her suicide, continuing the show’s trend of glorifying self-harm and dangerous behavior. 13 Reasons Why also presents the viewer with inaccurate information concerning mental illness: Hannah’s choice to kill herself is blamed on the people around her, most whom are simply teenagers making the same mistakes many viewers likely did in high school, not her ongoing struggle with depression and inability to seek professional help. However, if treated with caution, the show can be valuable in that it opens up avenues for the discussion and de-stigmatization of mental illness, an issue that is rarely addressed within religious circles.

    Overall, I would not recommend the show to viewers who struggle with mental illness, nor to those who are seeking to better understand or help someone who deals with suicidal thoughts or tendencies, as 13 Reasons Why makes for a poor resource when it comes to dealing with the deeper truths of living with a mental disorder.  However, for those who have the emotional capacity to watch the show without being affected by it’s heavier moments or overall message, season two has the makings of a decent show that opens for conversations ranging far beyond its core plot and messages.