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13 Reasons Why – suicide the last taboo

13 Reasons Why is a Netflix TV drama about a troubled teenager who takes her own life, having beforehand recorded 13 tapes explaining the ‘reasons’ for her suicide. The show is based on ayoung adult best-selling novel by Jay Asher.

This TV show has generated controversy over its theme of teen suicide, depicting suicide ‘method’, and the graphic depiction of rape. Debate on the program content, and the reaction from suicide prevention and mental health organisations, has created an international furor. Headspace, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation providing early intervention mental health services to 12-25 year olds, issued a warning about the show’s “dangerous content” and labelled the program irresponsible for depicting suicide methods. Headspace said it “exposes viewers to risky suicide content and may lead to a distressing reaction by the viewer, particularly if the audience is children and young people.” A critic on MamaMia, Australia’s largest independent women’s website, described the show as “a suicide manual”.

Other critics point out that 13 Reasons Why does not conform to the guidelines on safe and responsible reporting on suicide. Mindframe, who provide information to support the reporting, portrayal and communication of suicide, said the TV drama “sends the wrong messages about suicide risk and the show does nothing to encourage help-seeking.”

There is no question that 13 Reasons Why is confronting viewing; with graphic messages and imagery of suicide methods. Most troubling for many suicide and mental health experts, it does not present options for troubled teens. This is the view of leading cultural magazine Rolling Stone: “Had 13 Reasons Why showcased other forms of outreach, like therapy, teens watching it might realize that there is always an option that doesn’t include self-harm.”

In a Vanity Fair interview, scriptwriter Nic Sheff (who incidentally has spoken of his own suicide attempts) defended the show’s direct approach:Facing [suicide] head-on … will always be our best defense against losing another life. We need to keep talking, keep sharing, and keep showing the realities of what teens in our society are dealing with every day. To do anything else would be not only irresponsible, but dangerous.”

Many websites discussing the pros and cons of this controversial series agree that it is leading to a wider discussion about teenage issues and how parents can talk with the children about suicide and self-harm. The Sydney Morning Herald reviewer described the show as an “unflinching but unexploitative portrayal … 13 Reasons Why is extremely tough viewing at times … It’s strong stuff that works hard to shatter pernicious assumptions.” The New York Times commented: “The overall message — one that probably appeals to teenagers — is that it’s possible to figure out why someone takes her own life, and therefore to guard against it happening to others.” The Guardian, by contrast, deplored the series as “horrifying”. The New Yorker, in a scathing assessment, raised a crucial issue, namely that the series does not address mental illness, and presents “suicide as both an addictive scavenger hunt and an act that gives … glory, respect, and adoration that was denied in real life.”

The debate over 13 Reasons Why is, in essence, whether teenage suicide is a subject matter to be graphically depicted in a popular teen drama, whether the modern appetite for ‘binge’ watching allows young viewers to properly understand and discuss the issues (and seek appropriate counseling and guidance), and whether a slick, glossy TV series can inadvertently present suicide as ‘normal’, even glamorous.

Conversely, as others have advanced, we shouldn’t make suicide, especially youth suicide, a taboo issue. By bringing it out into the open (and the show is based on a popular book that caused few ripples when it was released) we open a gateway into a most confronting and all too real issue for young people.

It’s too early to assess the impact of this show on young viewers, but it does appear that how we discuss youth suicide has been changed.

Simon Tatz
Director, Public Health   

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