Mental Health

Is ’13 Reasons Why’ Causing More Harm Than Good?

May 24, 2017

Trigger Warning for a discussion of suicide ideation in teens

When my father Victor died by suicide seven years ago, it completely changed the way I thought about the act. I had once imagined it as something that could provide the ultimate comfort, when I was a depressed teenager who had been exposed to a lot of pain and trauma at a young age.

Each May, during Mental Health Awareness Month, I think about my parents who both struggled with mental health issues without support from within or outside of their communities for much of their lives.

Our culture has advanced quite a bit from the time in which I grew up. Before hashtags and Facebook groups, the only information I could find about mental illness was in the books I borrowed from the New York Public Library. Back then, I didn’t even know what to look for. I only knew my mother, Marguerite, was sometimes violently abusive and sometimes terribly depressed. Her bipolar and borderline personality disorders weren’t diagnosed until the last decade of her life.

So growing up without a clear understanding of what my mother’s mental state contributed to our challenging lives meant I had to navigate confusing adult situations without a lot of support. My mother’s manic mood swings made it hard for her to maintain employment, pay bills on time or buy food consistently. After awhile, I wondered if my mother’s life wouldn’t be easier without me. I eyed a bottle of pills in the medicine cabinet for days, pondering what I thought would be relief from chaos for us both.

I made a half-hearted attempt to swallow a bottle of pills, but thankfully, I was not successful. Thousands of teenagers every year, however, carry out their attempts at suicide; it is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 15 and 24. And when I watched “13 Reasons Why,” recently renewed for a second season, I remembered the alienating depths of that despair.

The show centers on Hannah Baker, who, after her suicide, leaves behind a set of cassette tapes singling out the people in her community she holds responsible. Though I’m many years removed from the anxiety and depression that led me to consider suicide, when I watched “13 Reasons Why,” I worried about how a younger me would have responded to its graphic depiction of the act.

Parents, teenagers and others concerned about the triggering aspects of the show have come to to underscore how dangerous it can be to see the series without the right number of warnings. A couple of petitions ask that the series be removed from Netflix altogether. Others ask that resources for support like the Crisis Text Line are highlighted.

Beyond the show, other parts of the community are calling attention to how teen suicide has impacted local communities. At a Knox County school in Tennessee, Catherine Miller has called for more conversations with students after three students have died by suicide. In Arizona, more than 110,000 people have signed Denise Denslow’s petitionurging lawmakers to ensure that young people like her son Jacob, who died by suicide at 15, have the support they need.

Painful reminders of my father’s death and my mother’s mental health challenges sometimes pop up without warning. As more time passes, it’s easier for me to find healing and understand that the things that kept them both from living longer lives — either because of lack of support or knowledge of how mental health can forever shape families — are within our power to keep from ending the lives of young people. Maybe we won’t save everyone who thinks about suicide, but at least we can try to save some.