Is this re­ally the way TV should deal with sui­cide?

As ‘13 Rea­sons Why’ re­turns on Net­flix, Ju­lia Llewellyn Smith ex­plains why the show has gripped teenagers and hor­ri­fied their par­ents

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Analysis -

‘What I saw was a se­ries that treats teenage sui­cide like a game... It is hor­ri­fy­ing and feeds into stereo­types of sui­cide’

IFIRST heard of 13 Rea­sons Why last sum­mer when an email from my chil­dren’s school landed in my in-box. It listed a num­ber of con­cerns about the show — a new Net­flix se­ries fol­low­ing the story of a 17-year-old school­girl who has recorded her rea­sons for tak­ing her own life on a set of au­dio cas­settes.

The school pas­toral team, the email said, were wor­ried that the plot lent cre­dence to the mis­con­cep­tion that sui­cide was some glam­orous act of re­venge. In the se­ries, Han­nah ar­ranges for the tapes to be passed on to each one of her school tor­men­tors af­ter her death — so that they are made aware of just how dam­ag­ing their ac­tions have been.

Lack­adaisi­cal par­ent that I am, I im­me­di­ately for­got all about this, then a few weeks later I found my then-12-yearold daugh­ter Sasha mes­merised by the show. “Ev­ery­one in my class is into it,” she ex­plained.

The telly was turned off. Yelling en­sued. But Sasha — to her credit — agreed to stop watch­ing, not least when I pointed out that the se­ries had an 18 rat­ing and con­tained not only dis­tress­ing im­ages of Han­nah’s death, but also graphic rape scenes. But de­spite, or very pos­si­bly be­cause of, such con­tent, some of her friends con­tin­ued to watch avidly.

They were far from alone. Although Net­flix doesn’t re­lease view­ing fig­ures, so­cial me­dia re­ac­tions made it clear that 13 Rea­sons had got peo­ple’s at­ten­tion: last year it was the US’s fourth most tweeted-about show, af­ter Game of Thrones, Stranger Things and Big Brother. Fig­ures were lower in the UK and here, but still im­pres­sive.

And to­day, the stream­ing ser­vice launches the sec­ond se­ries, de­spite com­plaints that the tim­ing co­in­cides with exam sea­son, when ado­les­cent sui­cide rates typ­i­cally rise. In the UK, the Royal Col­lege of Psy­chi­a­trists de­scribed it­self as “ex­tremely dis­ap­pointed and an­gry” at the tim­ing, while a spokesman for the As­so­ci­a­tion of School and Col­lege Lead­ers de­scribed Net­flix’s de­ci­sion as “grim”.

So what is it about the se­ries that so ap­pals men­tal-health ex­perts and trans­fixes teenagers? Part of the show’s ini­tial ap­peal lay in one of the stars, not an ac­tor — the mem­bers of the cast were then largely un­known — but the co-pro­ducer, Se­lena Gomez, the singer, ac­tress and on-off girl­friend of Justin Bieber. Gomez bought the rights to adapt the source ma­te­rial for the show — a 2007 novel of the same name by Amer­i­can au­thor Jay Asher — with her mother, and spoke pub­licly about the way in which the book’s themes of bul­ly­ing res­onated with her. Such themes clearly also struck a chord with au­di­ences world­wide, who re­lated to Han­nah and her ex­pe­ri­ences, which en­com­passed both uni­ver­sal com­ing-of-age trau­mas such as bul­ly­ing and is­sues unique to the so­cial-me­dia age, such as “slut-sham­ing” (crit­i­cis­ing some­one who’s per­ceived as sex­u­ally avail­able) and FOMO — “fear-ofmiss­ing-out”, trig­gered by watch­ing oth­ers hav­ing fun on so­cial me­dia such as In­sta­gram. Yet many who worked with teenagers were hor­ri­fied by the show, not least its treat­ment of sui­cide, the lead­ing cause of death for UK ado­les­cents. They pointed out that 90pc of sui­cides were the re­sult of un­di­ag­nosed or un­treated de­pres­sive dis­or­ders, but that the show failed to ex­am­ine these com­plex is­sues or ex­plain how con­di­tions such as anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion can be treated. In­stead, it pro­moted the sim­plis­tic no­tion that ev­ery­one around Han­nah — from a girl who slapped her in the face, to a school guid­ance coun­sel­lor who didn’t take her com­plaints se­ri­ously — had “pushed” her into tak­ing her own life. They were also con­cerned that death was por­trayed as some­how not fi­nal, with a spec­tral Han­nah watch­ing the ac­tion, giv­ing the im­pres­sion that from the grave she can both avenge her­self and at­tract the glory that eluded her in life.

“I find 13 Rea­sons re­ally dis­turb­ing,” says Dr Ni­cole Gehl, a London-based child psy­chother­a­pist. “I started watch­ing af­ter I had 11-yearold pa­tients talk­ing about it and what I saw was a se­ries that treats teenage sui­cide like a game.

“It is hor­ri­fy­ing and feeds into stereo­types of sui­cide as a form of at­ten­tion seek­ing, as a way of tak­ing re­venge, as some­thing that is caused by the ac­tions of oth­ers.

“Teenagers al­ready go through so much stress and anx­i­ety,” Gehl con­tin­ues.

“The show’s de­fend­ers say these are is­sues that should be talked about: they’re right, but they shouldn’t be talked about like this.”

Gehl’s con­cerns are backed up by Google sta­tis­tics con­firm­ing that in the days fol­low­ing sea­son one’s re­lease, searches for “how to com­mit sui­cide” in­creased by 26pc. Two Cal­i­for­nian fam­i­lies, whose daugh­ters — both aged 15 — had killed them­selves shortly af­ter binge-watch­ing the show, called Gomez “clue­less” and begged for it to be scrapped.

Fu­ri­ous sui­cide char­i­ties, in­clud­ing the Sa­mar­i­tans, com­plained that the show’s fi­nal episode, which showed very gory footage of Han­nah cut­ting open her wrists, was in direct con­tra­ven­tion of me­dia guide­lines that sui­cide meth­ods should not be shown on screen for fear of prompt­ing copycat at­tempts. Child­line said it had re­ceived sev­eral calls from chil­dren say­ing it had trig­gered mem­o­ries of sui­ci­dal thoughts.

Net­flix has de­fended the show, with its showrun­ner Brian Yorkey say­ing it por­trays sui­cide in a “very ugly and very dam­ag­ing” light. Ret­ro­spec­tively it added a video to the be­gin­ning of sea­son one fea­tur­ing mem­bers of the cast, as them­selves, warn­ing view­ers that, if they were strug­gling with the “tough, real-world is­sues” tack­led by the se­ries then the show “may not be right for you”. This was in ad­di­tion to warn­ings al­ready in place on spe­cific episodes.

The sec­ond se­ries, which fo­cuses on Han­nah’s fam­ily su­ing the school for al­low­ing her to be bul­lied, will have the same warn­ing video. It also fea­tures a scene plainly meant to ad­dress crit­i­cisms, in which the school prin­ci­pal tells Han­nah’s close friend Clay he wants to put an end to dis­cussing the death.

“Kids get talk­ing about Han­nah, maybe even ad­mir­ing what she did. They might think some­how that this is an an­swer,” he says, only to be told by Clay: “Maybe they just wanted to start a con­ver­sa­tion.”

The prin­ci­pal adds he doesn’t want de­pressed school­child­ren to think sui­cide will help them “live on for­ever” af­ter they die, a baf­fling state­ment given [spoiler alert] that ghostly Han­nah con­tin­ues ap­pear­ing through­out sea­son two, but — in an ad­vance on last time — talk­ing.

Watch­ing it as a par­ent, one main mes­sage re­sounds: how­ever gru­elling the tra­vails of Han­nah and her peers, not one is worth killing your­self for.

Whether chil­dren can un­der­stand this, how­ever, is far from clear.

“Sui­cide is never a rea­son­able an­swer and to give a teenage au­di­ence am­mu­ni­tion to think this is dam­ag­ing,” Gehl says. Her ad­vice is that un­der-18s should not watch the show. “Ob­vi­ously the more kids are for­bid­den to do some­thing, the more they are go­ing to do it, but at least with Net­flix it’s easy to check view­ing his­to­ries, though you still can’t stop them watch­ing it at friends’ houses,” she says.

If all else fails, she coun­sels watch­ing the se­ries with your chil­dren. “By do­ing that you can have con­ver­sa­tions about the is­sues raised, which can give you a lot of in­sight into what they might be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.”

Cer­tainly, chats I’ve sub­se­quently had with Sasha (who’s read the book, aimed at a younger age group) have been hair-rais­ing.

“Oh yeah, my friends and I are all plan­ning the tapes we’d make if we kill our­selves,” she said, flip­pantly.

Later, she told me: “All my friends loved sea­son one, but the end­ing made them de­pressed.” She’s still clam­our­ing that “all my friends” will watch sea­son two, but I can see zero rea­sons why she should be al­lowed.

Any­one who needs sup­port can call the na­tional sui­cide helpline run by Pi­eta House on 1800 247 247

The Sa­mar­i­tans op­er­ate a 24-hour helpline at freep­hone 116 123, or email: [email protected] sa­mar­i­tans.ie

Life­line, the North­ern Ire­land cri­sis re­sponse helpline for peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dis­tress or de­spair is 0808 808 8000

CON­TRO­VER­SIAL: Above, Alisha Boe as Jes­sica and be­low, Kather­ine Langford as Han­nah in ‘13 Rea­sons Why’. In­set left, pro­ducer Se­lena Gomez

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