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Monday 14 October 2019

13 Reason Why: 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

Alisha Boe as Jessica
Alisha Boe as Jessica

Julia Llewellyn Smith

I first 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.

Katherine Langford as Hannah in ‘13 Reasons Why’
Katherine Langford as Hannah in ‘13 Reasons Why’

Lackadaisical parent that I am, I immediately forgot all about this, then a few weeks later I found my then-12-year-old 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".

producer Selena Gomez
producer Selena Gomez

[Editor's note: This piece was written before the Santa Fe school shooting in which 10 people died and which prompted Netflix to cancel the US premiere of season 2, although the season remains available on the streaming service]

Read more: Netflix cancel 13 Reasons Why premiere after Sante Fe school shooting 

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-of-missing-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-year-old 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, 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.

l Anyone who needs support can call the national suicide helpline run by Pieta House on 1800 247 247 l The Samaritans operate a 24-hour helpline at freephone 116 123, or email: jo@samaritans.ie l Lifeline, the Northern Ireland crisis response helpline for people experiencing distress or despair is 0808 808 8000



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