The Runner Debates: The Ethics Behind 13 Reasons Why

The show can be a catalyst for social change

(Nicola Kwit)

Read the other half of the argument here:

(Nicola Kwit)

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

Few shows are as polarizing as Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, which depicts the aftermath of high schooler Hannah Baker’s suicide. In the show, Hannah uses 13 audio-cassette tapes to reveal one-by-one the reasons why she took her own life.

Simply put, people either love the show or despise it.

I understand the apprehension towards 13 Reasons Why. One criticism is that it promotes suicide by portraying lead protagonist Hannah as a romantic but tragic figure. The show has also been accused of being triggering for impressionable teenagers or people battling mental illness.

Last year, for example, CBS News reported that two teenage girls in California committed suicide after watching the series. Each episode now airs a disclaimer because of their mature subject matter.

People can choose to watch 13 Reasons Why or not, just as they can choose whether or not they will ignore the warning signs of loved ones in emotional distress. For those who do watch the show, there is an important lesson to be learned from it.

People with severe mental illnesses may not possess the emotional or psychological wherewithal to seek treatment. Because of this, we must personally pay attention to the actions of our loved ones—especially if they’re expressing warning signs of severe mental illness or suicidal ideation—and not blame a television show for their actions. Don’t wait until your loved one is dead to consider their well-being. Intervene while you still have the chance.

Instead of scapegoating a television show, people should realize that suicide happens due to underlying mental health crises.

Writing for the National Post, Sharon Kirkey argues that, “when someone is in the grip of severe depression and unbearable mental anguish, suicide can almost seem like a logical decision.” Despite this, people shouldn’t be afraid to discuss suicide with someone who is struggling because they’re concerned with implanting the idea in their mind. Reaching out shows that someone loves them and is willing to listen.

Personally, I was appalled by the outrage expressed towards the season two finale “Bye”, in which high schooler Tyler is raped by jock Monty. Everyone from social media users to the Parents Television Council were livid because the show depicted a scene that many said was “horrifying.”

As I read online comment threads, my blood began to boil. Why was I so angry? Because everybody missed the point.

You want to know what’s worse than viewing a sexual assault on television? It’s being sexually assaulted in real life. The only difference is that real victims can’t turn off their television and forget it’s not real.

Scenes like those which illustrate Hannah’s rape and subsequent suicide, or issues like school shootings and bullying, aren’t just fictional storylines in a Netflix show. They are mirror images of the world we live in.

No amount of changing the channel or petitioning for the show to be cancelled will change that.

Instead of finding faults with 13 Reasons Why, use the show to discuss social issues many of us are reluctant to openly talk about. With the recent suicides of designer Kate Spade, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and countless school shootings in the United States, these dialogues are more important now than ever before.

Mental illness has personally affected my life and the lives of my friends and loved ones. I know the stranglehold it has on its sufferers.  It’s time that we change how it is perceived in society, and openly discussing it is the first step.