TRIGGER WARNING SENSITIVE MATERIAL
Content warning: This piece discusses suicide-related content.
In the weeks and months following the release of 13 Reasons Why on Netflix, much has been written about the scene in the series’ final episode depicting the main character Hannah’s death by suicide. However, suicide attempt survivors, as well as an expert in the field, believe that the scene’s explicit depiction of suicide has a number of huge problems that are more complex than the scene just being labeled as “bad”; they think the scene is both too realistic and completely unrealistic at the same time.
Dese’Rae L. Stage, a survivor as well as the creator of photo series Live Through This, brings up the scene’s “realism” is actually a central issue with it. “Given my own experiences as a suicide attempt survivor, I think it was a little too hyper-realistic,” she tells Teen Vogue. “It violates all of the guidelines set out by suicide prevention organizations about how to portray [and] report on suicide. It’s scary, it’s gory and it’s very violent. It’s filmed close up, it never cuts away. The creators wanted to, essentially, scare young people away from suicide.” The problem, Stage explains, is that fear campaigns don’t work, and the show may have done more harm than good in showing people, particularly young people, how to use a specific method to take their own lives.
A survivor named Ashley also believes that the series could’ve shown less in the scene while still creating a meaningful moment. “You could’ve shown her get the razor, you could’ve shown her get in the bathtub, you could’ve shown the blood. You didn’t have to show her getting the blade and cutting into her wrist,” she explains. “And you know what? It still would’ve made just as severe an impact.” Instead, she says, the show gave viewers a “step-by-step guide” for how to attempt suicide using a specific method.
On the flip side, survivor Caitlin believes that realism wasn’t depicted enough, as not much was shown about what goes on mentally before or after a suicide attempt. “The scene of her death was romanticized and not gritty enough,” she says to Teen Vogue. “This is not some dark, beautiful thing. This is somebody at their lowest moment, choosing to end their life.”
Moreover, Julie Ceral, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, professor at the University of Kentucky, and president of the American Association of Suicidology, says that one of her biggest problems with the series is that the idea that main character Hannah’s “quirky” tapes are part of a “typical” experience of someone experiencing suicidal thoughts. “It’s just not a realistic portrayal; it’s a portrayal built for entertainment,” she explains. “The worry is kids will see it and think these issues aren’t that serious.” Ashley also adds that Hannah’s story, one about taking her own life as a means of revenge, is incredibly rare, and the show doesn’t dig into the numerous other mental health reasons that lead someone to consider an attempt and act on those thoughts.
As 13 Reasons Why begins working on its second season, survivors have advice for producers who want to better the show. “Look at the research. Talk to preventionists and researchers in the field,” survivor and mental health advocate Alyse Ruriani says. “Learn from people with lived experience. And then listen to them; don’t ignore it because you don’t like the answer or think that your vision is above it. Instead, find ways to express your artistic vision without compromising on the guidelines set forth on best practices, because they are there for a reason.”
Additionally, Ashley hopes the series does more to discuss mental health. “If [they’re] going to do a second season, the thing I hope they do and I would personally do is use that second season to go back and point out all the signs of Hannah’s mental illness,” she explains. A suicide attempt, Ashley says, isn’t an isolated incident, and digging into Hannah’s issues with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression could go a long way.
Ruriani also hopes the series’ producers will reconsider how they advertise it to viewers. “One of the things that bothered me the most about 13 Reasons Why wasn’t even in the show, it was the way they used Hannah’s suicide as an advertising gimmick, baiting the audience to guess ‘who killed her’ is extremely inappropriate,” she says. “Having her reappear over and over makes the impact of the fact that she is dead get lost. When you die by suicide there is no coming back. You don’t get to hear the apologies and the things people wish they said when you were alive. You’re gone.”
When I read this article by Lily Herman I was particularly struck by Ruriani words “You don’t get to hear the apologies and the things people wish they said when you were alive. You’re gone.” That is at the very core of suicide the finality of it. You do not ever come back. You never see your family again. You never get to say another word to them and what about them. What is it like for them.
Suicide is devastating and the effects of suicide on family members and loved ones of the person who has died by suicide can be severe and far-reaching. Those left behind by suicide are often known as suicide survivors and while this is a very difficult position in which to find oneself.
Effects of Suicide on Family and Friends
Learning that a loved one has died by suicide can absolutely be traumatic. In addition to all the feelings that anyone would feel about the death of a loved one, when the death is a suicide, there are additional feelings like:
Extreme guilt for not preventing the suicide
Failure because a person they loved felt unloved and committed suicide
Anger or resentment at the person who chose to take his or her own life
Distress over unresolved issues (many of which often exist in families where one person has a mental illness, which is common in people who die by suicide)
Suicide Effects on the Mental Health of Family and Friends
Unfortunately, friends and family of those who have committed suicide experience impacts on their own mental health. In a Canadian study, parents who lost a child to suicide typically have higher rates of depression, physical problems and low income (often even before the child’s suicide). Anxiety and divorce are very common effects on parents after a child’s suicide.
Another study showed that children of parents who committed suicide are at a significantly increased risk for committing suicide themselves. The younger the child at the time of the parent’s suicide, the greater the risk of his or her own suicide.
Stigma and the Effects of Suicide in Family and Friends
When a person dies, societally, others generally offer empathy and compassion, but when a person dies by suicide, there is stigma around that death and people often treat the loved ones of the person who committed suicide differently. Loved ones can be very afraid to talk about the suicide for fear of judgement and condemnation – being blamed for the suicide of their family member or friend. Because of this, one effect of suicide on family and friends can be extreme isolation.
Having attempted suicide several times I did not take any of the above into account and I doubt if I got into the same depths of despair again I would but writing them down and researching the impact on family and friends is sobering and hopefully it will make me think twice the next time. It is a devastating event for all concerned and it is no one’s fault.