I don’t watch 13 Reasons Why, and I never will for very specific reasons, but I’ve been following its reviews – good and bad – because it stands to impact people, and it’s a subject I’m personally invested in for reasons that are about to become apparent.
Warning: I’m about to hit on themes of suicide and self harm. I’m also going to talk about the final episode so: spoilers.
One thing a lot of people have said in regards to the final episode and its depiction of the suicide is how visceral and realistic it is. How it did anything but romanticise the act, and how important that is. The author of the novel has spoken about the creative team’s choice to show it in detail for that reason.
“We worked very hard not to be gratuitous,” the show creator says in Beyond the Reasons, the Netflix followup special, “but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.”
A noble idea. Too bad it’s one backed up by exactly zero substantive evidence to indicate it works. In fact, the actual evidence is super clear on the exact opposite.
Suicide contagion is exactly what it sounds like: studies have shown that exposure to suicide — predominantly in the media, but also in fiction — increases the risk that others will kill themselves. It’s such a well understood concept that the media has very specific guidelines they must follow in order to ethically report instances of suicide.
The premise of 13 Reasons Why itself breaks one of the basic tenets – “don’t disclose the suicide note” – but done with care, responsibility, and value of context, this isn’t overtly dangerous. I obviously can’t speak to how well the show handles itself there.
What I can speak to is the suicide scene from the final episode. Because dear-readers, I sat myself down, cracked a beer with shaking hands, and made myself watch it so I could write this article.
And oh boy. OH. BOY.
Let’s for a moment pretend that publishing images of suicide or detailing the method used isn’t explicitly against guidelines put together by suicide prevention experts. Let’s say that depicting graphic suicides as “unglamorously” as possible can deter the venerable from attempting the same. Let’s say this is a clear cut case of “stove == hot == don’t do the thing”.
This scene isn’t that. At all.
Don’t get me wrong, the scene is harrowing, of course it is. I’m sure it’s more-so for people who have watched the show and gotten attached to the character. But as someone who’s been suicidal—who has actively contemplated killing myself in the same way depicted—this is nothing but a shoddily abbreviated how-to manual.
For those who haven’t seen the show, Hannah kills herself by cutting her wrists – three vertical cuts, the first depicted in a close-up to show substantial depth. The actual act of cutting runs less than thirty seconds, the remaining thirty-five showing her sitting back and waiting. The show then cuts to her parents finding her body.
I’m sure for people who have never contemplated suicide or who have never self-harmed through cutting, this scene would appear wildly off-putting. As someone who has done both, this scene made slitting ones wrists look disgustingly easy. Because to people like me blood isn’t off-putting, nor is physical pain. You wanna know what actually stopped me considering slitting my wrists? Researching how to do it. Because let me tell you very explicitly: it’s not as technically easy, nor as quick as 13 Reason’s Why makes it look. I find it morbidly hilarious that this reckless, shitty scene is being hailed for its realism.
13 Reasons Why‘s graphic depiction of suicide in and of itself is disgustingly irresponsible. And since they actively consulted mental health and suicide prevention experts, I can only assume they knew the line was there for a reason and crossed it anyway. But on top of that, their gross, irrelevant excuse of trying to turn people off the idea through a harrowing depiction doesn’t even stand up in the face of the very harsh, very depressing reality.
At the end of the day this is just another example of gratuitous on-screen violence, and as usual, it throws the most vulnerable under the bus while others lord it as “gritty” and “realistic” and “poignant”. I cannot stress enough how very, very over this I am.
If you need to reach out there are resources available: