Thirteen Reasons Why begins just after high school sophomore Hannah Baker has killed herself. Over the course of thirteen episodes in Netflix’s controversial new miniseries, Hannah narrates in voiceover the events that led up to her suicide, as other characters listen with dread to the cassette tapes she has left behind. “It’s me, live and in stereo,” the first tape begins. “I am about to tell you the story of my life—more specifically, why my life ended.” Then she says, “If you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.”
This scenario, the premise for the series, is highly unrealistic. The typical suicidal person is not a tragic figure fated for self-destruction, but a vulnerable individual suffering treatable mental health problems. The act is impulsive and the person ambivalent. Reason and judgment are usually clouded by depression, mania, anxiety, drugs, or alcohol. Though emotionally wounded and traumatized, Hannah orchestrates her suicide with calm lucidity. Her suicide was meticulously planned and long premeditated, and yet the series absolves her of all responsibility. Only the others take the blame: “We all killed Hannah Baker,” as one of them puts it.
Since 1999, suicide rates in the United States have risen alarmingly across age groups, but nowhere is the increase more striking than among adolescents. The suicide rate for ten-to-fourteen-year-old girls has tripled. Such outbreaks are not new. At the height of German Romanticism, Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther, a book whose titular hero takes his own life. A spate of young men imitated Werther, alarming authorities in Germany and Italy. Social scientists have since found that when suicide is publicized or romanticized, it can become contagious, resulting in “suicide clusters.”
In order to minimize the Werther Effect, the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the Surgeon General have published guidelines for responsible reporting of suicide. A fictional show like 13 Reasons Why can be just as dangerous as a news report. After all, Werther himself was a fictional character. It may be worthwhile, then, to compare common reporting guidelines (placed in italics) with the way 13 Reasons handles suicide.
Avoid language that sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems.
As the title suggests, 13 Reasons Why sets up a puzzle and promises a solution. Episode by episode, the puzzle pieces fall into place. The plot thus presents suicide as comprehensible, a rational and understandable response to adverse circumstances, an act that is dramatically and artistically fitting. It is the consonant chord that resolves the dissonant and suspended notes of Hannah’s life, the catharsis in the concluding scene of the tragedy.
Avoid presenting simplistic explanations for suicide.
The show is a well wrought, eminently satisfying suicide note that takes thirteen hours to read, or rather, to watch. In reality, those left behind by suicide, and those who study it, rarely find answers in suicide notes. They find anger, despair, anguish, irrationality, futile reassurances that loved ones are not to blame, and the occasional apology. There are no satisfying explanations—just unanswerable questions and intolerable burdens. Suicide leaves skeletons in other peoples’ closets.
Avoid presenting suicide as a tool for accomplishing certain ends.
13 Reasons presents suicide as a therapeutic exercise. Suicide vents resentment, settles scores, and delivers payback. It unties knots and cleans up messes, at least for Hannah. Suicide permits Hannah to rein in the rumors flying around about her. It allows the truth—at least, her version of it—finally to come out. Everything is arranged so that Hannah has the last word. The story endorses an immature denial-of-death suicide fantasy: “When I’m gone they’ll finally love me and know the truth.”
Though dead, Hannah dictates the rules for those hearing the tapes, directs them to various locations on a map, and prompts them to act. Emotional blackmail provides the failsafe for her plan: Another set of tapes has been placed in the hands of someone who will release them publicly, if her list of listeners does not follow her instructions. From beyond the grave, Hannah is the inventive auteur, and her listeners are her helpless audience. Suicide is the hinge upon which Hannah’s unrealistic empowerment fantasy hangs.
Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide.
In 13 Reasons, suicide is not a single event but the centrally recurrent motif. Each episode is a new repetition of the suicide story—the same tale told from a different angle, a new vector pointing to the same conclusion. Hannah’s suicide is always lurking in the background, coloring the meaning of each character and every plot point.
Avoid explicit description of the method used and avoid providing detailed information about the site.
Hannah’s death is depicted in an unflinching scene, complete with razor blade and plenty of blood. For some viewers, the graphic scene of Hannah’s suicide will be a warning; but for others, it will be a suggestion.
Avoid glorifying suicide or people who commit it, including by focusing unduly on the positive characteristics of those who commit it.
With abundant looks, charm, sincerity, and wit, Hannah is the most sympathetic character in the show. She is also a brilliant strategist and a skilled storyteller—carefully weaving the plot points and rationally elucidating the apparently irrational act. We hang on every word of her narrative, eager for her to reveal the enigma of her death. If this is not an idealized, romanticized vision of a suicidal teen, I don’t know what would be.
13 Reasons deserves commendation for exposing some of the causes that have led to the increase in teen suicide. Hannah chooses to record her story on cassette tapes in order to protest the way her peers use social media. “Everyone is following everyone” on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, she says. “They’ve made us a society of stalkers.” Cutthroat academic and social competition, in which the strong overpower the weak, makes Hannah and her friends paranoid. A lack of clear guidelines for navigating sex and relationships leaves them disoriented. But it is hard to absorb these lessons from a series that stakes its appeal on the glamor of death.
Aaron Kheriaty is associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine.
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