*Note: this post contains major spoilers for 13 Reasons Why
13 Reasons Why is taking the internet by storm. Released March 31st, the thirteen-part series is inciting varied reactions from its viewership and for good reason too. The book adaptation of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why delves into themes of sexual assault, bullying, harassment, rape and suicide. The show is even rated as TV-MA, meaning it may not be suitable for children 17 and under.
Some critics were enthralled with the series’ boldness to address these topics. From Buzzfeed to Forbes, positive reviews of the show’s courage to bring unsettling topics to mainstream attention are saturating Google results.
Others take flak with Netflix green-lighting this kind of content. After all, the themes aforementioned are sensitive, to say the least. Some critics find 13 Reasons Why “an irresponsible dramatization of teenage suicide.” Whether it is the drawn-out narrative taking away the gravitas of the issue or the graphic depiction of Hannah Baker slitting her wrists, 13 Reasons Why critics argue the show fails to address the tragedy in a respectful, constructive manner.
I personally disagree with critics of 13 Reasons Why. I believe the show is slow yet teasing; camp yet realistic; entertaining yet unsettling. 13 Reasons Why built every episode on top of the other, tackling the nuances of suicide (and its aftermath) with bold strides. My late binge-watching nights were not driven by guilty teen-angst pleasure shows like Glee or The Vampire Diaries typically incite; instead, I was willed to emotionally invest in the tragedy and its aftermath. Every episode, darker than the last, I watched because it hurt. Any show that can elicit deep emotional reactions is worthy of a review in my book.
I did notice one factor of Hannah’s suicide the show did not fully address: mental illness. It alluded too many times that Hannah was depressed—her feelings of isolation, helplessness and social withdrawal.
“What if the only way not to feel bad is to stop feeling anything at all, forever?”
Hannah also clearly faced suicidal ideation, and yet, there is a present lack of mental health resources offered to her. In the last episode, Hannah’s cry for help to the school counselor is returned with a sympathetic box of tissues.
“If only she could articulate herself as depressed!” I said to myself. She may have never committed suicide if she received mental health services. She may be undiagnosed, but wouldn’t recognizing and labeling herself as depressed solved the whole series?
I recognize a few issues with my well-intentioned wish, however.
First, I took the assumption that self-diagnosis is easy to grapple with for those that face mental illness. Stigma towards mental health is still prominent in the United States, deterring individuals from confronting the reality of their mental health. It is far easier to just say, “I’m going through a rough patch,” or, “I’m just tired, that’s all,” rather than admit serious underlying issues. According to the CDC, only 35% of Americans that exhibit severe symptoms of depression seek treatment. Similarly, only about one-third of Americans with anxiety disorders seek treatment. Identifying mental illness in oneself is not as simple as it may sound.
But self-recognition is only the beginning. For those that do recognize their mental health issue(s), self-diagnosis is then condemned. Articles like “Stop Whoring Out Your Undiagnosed ‘Mental Illness’” and “Misguided Self-Diagnosis Trivializes Mental Illness” degrade the situation of those suffering merely on the requisite of a professional diagnosis.
While a health professional may be more qualified in identifying nuanced mental disorders, the diagnosis does not prelude the disorder itself. Depression is as legitimate and disabling before formal diagnosis as it is afterward. Informal diagnosis, whether by a family member, friend or self, is the basis of seeking professional treatment later.
The notion that self-diagnosis undermines the mental illness is misattributed. Some people throw around statements such as “I’m so bipolar today” and “This seriously gives me social anxiety” cavalierly without truly suffering from such mental disorders. In which case, those individuals are undermining the significance of mental health. The casual labeling of normal behavior as mental illness is a matter of health illiteracy, not self-diagnosis, however. The trivialization of mental health is not due to identifying one’s own mental health status but instead a byproduct of an uniformed, health-illiterate public.
Not to mention the reality that healthcare is not affordable/accessible to all those that have mental health issues. One of my best friends has been dealing with bipolar disorder for years and until recently could not afford counseling and treatment; the financial strain it placed on the family has been difficult to manage. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 50% of untreated mentally ill adults cited affordability as the main deterrent in seeking help. Concerning accessibility, approximately 16% cited lacking knowledge of where mental health services were provided.
In essence, I was wrong. Hannah Baker self-diagnosing herself as depressed wouldn’t have magically solved her problems. From the tapes she left behind, it is unclear if Hannah was cognizant of potential underlying mental factors. If she did, it may have only served to magnify the social divide between her peers and herself. She may have been further ridiculed as “attention seeking” and “dramatic.” Also, the financial standing in her home was poor—the Baker family was almost evicted in episode twelve—so affording medical treatment on top of rent would have been more burdensome than what she believed she already was. Not that the school counselor was readily available to provide mental health resources to Hannah. A box of tissues is all the help he could give.
We all wish we could have saved Hannah Baker and people like her from facing the crippling loneliness that leads toward suicide. But that is precisely the reason 13 Reasons Why earns my appreciation. It is unnerving and engaging. Let the critics write their reviews and let us all learn something together.