The Runner Debates: The Ethics Behind 13 Reasons Why

The problem isn’t the trigger warning; it’s the whole damn show

Read the other half of the argument here:

(Nicola Kwit)

Warning: this article discusses potentially triggering topics such as suicide and rape.

As someone who has seen the devastation that follows a loved one’s suicide, I can confidently say that the now-infamous rape scene in 13 Reasons Why isn’t the bane of the production. It’s show’s entire underlying message—the consistent whisper into the viewer’s ear that eventually sticks and says: “Suicides are caused by bad people.”

Every scene screams that Hannah Baker never would have killed herself if kids were just kinder. That’s a problem with more serious implications than the careless depiction of a triggering scene on television.

Whether you’re mentally well or not, the people in your life can upset you, hurt you, and damage you. If you have a mental illness, coping with abuse perpetrated against you becomes exponentially harder, and in extreme cases, a person may not be able to make safe decisions for themselves. They may be trapped in a situation where they’re incapable of reaching out for help.

But Hannah Baker wasn’t that person. She was a high school student who had unfair things happen to her and then made the conscious decision to elaborately guilt trip her classmates for it. Her choices caused her fellow classmates to suffer abuse and made it impossible for anyone in her life to properly grieve her loss. I have difficulty understanding how this could be anything but an insulting and dangerous narrative.

Hannah Baker isn’t a realistic character; she’s a symbol. Every teenage outcast who has been bullied, sexually harassed, abandoned, and shamed will feel a twinge of empathy for Hannah. If I had seen the show when I was younger and more vulnerable, I may have felt the urge to follow in her footsteps too, lured in by her tragic beauty and sarcastic sense of humor.

That genuinely frightens me, and it makes me angry at the team who wrote the show with no regard for the impact they could have on teens who actually struggle with serious mental health issues—not the neatly-packaged Hannah Bakers of the world, but the real kids who can’t see any hope in their future and don’t yet know how to productively cope with their illnesses.

Research conducted by JAMA Internal Medicine tracked Google searches for topics related to suicide around the premiere of 13 Reasons Why and found that the rates rose by almost 20 per cent in the first 19 days. That’s between 900,000 and 1.5 million more searches on the site than average. Two families in California claim that their teenage daughters watched the show days before taking their lives. Two teenage girls in Australia were found attempting suicide at their school, and many of their peers suggested that they had been inspired to do so by the show. Suicide threats and self-harm increased at a Florida school in response to the program according to a superintendent there.

The examples don’t stop there, and surely there will be more. This is despite the fact that Netflix claims the show is a catalyst for conversation, and has made promises to remove the suicide scene, provide more trigger warnings, and show a list of suicide hotline numbers during each episode.

It seems to me that the people benefitting from this “catalyst for conversation” are the people who don’t have serious mental illnesses. These people think that they can get a look inside the ugly heart of mental illness by watching a Netflix show. Anyone who has seen what suicide actually looks like knows that it’s too scary and unpredictable to be nicely summarized into 13 cassette tapes.


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