“13 Reasons Why” Reminds Us to Proceed with Caution

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Joanne Rhee
Web Director

For the past four years, Netflix has slowly and aggressively been rolling out its own original series, making them a decent competitor among networks releasing original content. Most recently, it released the television series “13 Reasons Why,” which is based off a novel of the same name.

While the series focuses on sexual assault, depression, bullying, underage drinking, and relationships in high school, the overarching theme of “13 Reasons Why” is suicide.

The main character, Hannah Baker, leaves a series of tapes that recount the events that led her to take her own life. Each tape is about a different person who had negatively impacted Hannah in some way. The show mainly focuses on the days that follow Hannah’s suicide to show how the characters cope and take responsibility for their actions. Additionally, the series heavily relies upon flashbacks for audiences to see and understand the actions that led to the tragic event. The last episode depicts Hannah’s graphic suicide.  

Since its release, “13 Reasons Why” has received a lot of praise and criticism. Much of the criticism has come from mental health experts and suicide prevention groups. Critics worry that the graphic suicide scene and other elements of the show may be glorifying suicide and sending the wrong message.

One unintended consequence of the show could be the suicide contagion effect. The suicide contagion effect, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is when “exposure to the suicide or suicidal behavior of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide.”

The copycat effect isn’t as implausible as it seems and has proven that life often imitates art. One common form of the copycat effect are copycat crimes, which occur when people commit crimes inspired by movies or television shows.

Unforeseeably, the show “Breaking Bad” has been the inspiration of a handful of copycat crimes. The series follows a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who begins to make and sell methamphetamine to provide for his family after being diagnosed with cancer.

In 2013, a man named Jason Davis was charged with murdering Regan Jolly, his then-girlfriend. Davis attempted to discard her body in a bathtub filled with acid, similar to the methods used in “Breaking Bad.” Davis’ roommate, Dean Settle, revealed that “Breaking Bad” was one of Davis’ favorite shows.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults.”

The suicide contagion effect has mostly been attributed to news and media reports of suicide. However, this effect may increasingly become more applicable to suicides depicted in film and television. Psychiatric research has shown a relationship between the depiction of suicide and the suicide contagion effect. Because of this, journalists and suicide prevention groups have even created guidelines and recommendations on how to report suicides in the news while minimizing risks of suicide contagion.

There are a lot of layers to the series, and a lot of aspects that can potentially be copied. The thread that ties the series together is the string of tapes Hannah leaves behind. It’s possible for these tapes to inspire people to leave their own notes to everyone that had wronged them. After being confronted with their wrongdoings, the different characters feel varying degrees of remorse and guilt. This plants the idea that real-life wrongdoers may feel the same guilt with detailed suicide notes.

Though “13 Reasons Why” seeks to raise awareness about these issues, it could have a far-reaching, negative effect on the very audience it seeks to inform. The show has just created a potentially dangerous equation with an unpredictable answer.

It’s undeniable that younger people make up a good amount of the audience demographic, especially because the show is set in a high school. Another study on the relationship between suicide and the media found that “individuals with demographic background similar to the person who committed highly publicized suicidal act (in most of the cases celebrities) are more vulnerable and receptive.”

The combination of somewhat relatable characters, a younger target audience, the culminating act of suicide, and about 13 hours of exposure to sensitive topics doesn’t necessarily point toward a complete positive outcome.

This series makes great efforts to address a lot of real life issues that young people may face. One of the biggest takeaways is to be more thoughtful of one’s actions, because they may have detrimental effects on another person’s life. However, this message is negated by the fact that Hannah sees suicide as the only answer to her problems. The show doesn’t provide another alternative to dealing with these problems. It reinforces a “what’s done is done” attitude, and that the only way to cope is through death.

“Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion,” Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, stated.

In fact, the series ends with a cliffhanger. Alex Standall, a character who hurt Hannah, is shown to have been overcome with guilt during the series. In the last episode, it’s reported that Alex received a gunshot wound to the head. It’s suggested that Alex shot himself, but there have been theories that another bullied character shot Alex. Regardless of who pulled the trigger, death is once again presented as an answer to a problem.

No matter what the creator intends, it’s ultimately up to the audience to interpret the art and take it how they will.