I fully expected to be emotionally drained after watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix. I'd read the amazing book by Jay Asher so I had an idea of what to expect — and any TV series that realistically depicts teenage suicide, sexual assault, and bullying is bound to be painful and deeply disturbing. The adaptation of Asher's novel was more brutal than I expected — details were added and adjusted in a manner that made the TV series even more intense than the book, and Katherine Langford's incredible performance as Hannah was heartbreaking. Although plenty of scenes were painful to watch, I commend the showrunners for not shying away from the ugly realities of the issues addressed in the show. However, there was one exception — I wish the depiction of Hannah's suicide on 13 Reasons Why had been handled differently for several reasons. Warning: This post discusses suicide in ways that may be triggering to those who struggle with self-harm.
In a departure from the book, Hannah's devastated parents (Kate Walsh and Brian d'Arcy James) are key characters — and the depiction of their grief, confusion, and despair is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the series. When it was time for the finale, I knew that watching Hannah's parents find her body would be an emotionally brutal scene. But what I wasn't prepared for was the preceding scene, in which Hannah climbs into a bathtub and very graphically cuts her wrists.
The emotional impact of Mrs. Baker finding Hannah's body sometime later will likely stay with me for a very long time, and it should. In fact, it was so powerful that the scene would have packed just as much of an emotional punch had it not followed an explicit depiction of the end of Hannah's life.
On one hand, the depiction of Hannah's suicide was consistent with the series' unflinching depiction of other traumas, but it was also an active choice from the show's writers. In Asher's novel, readers are never told exactly how Hannah killed herself; we just know that there's a rumor going around the school that she overdosed. That makes the wrist-cutting scene an invention of the series' writers, and one that could potentially be harmful viewers who are struggling themselves.
In 2014, the New York Times examined the idea of "suicide contagion" and reported there is a link between heavily publicized suicides — such as the death by suicide of Robin Williams — and an increase in suicide rates. Due to that link, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSA) published guidelines for how the media should report on suicides to avoid additional deaths in their wake. The guidelines focus on making sure that coverage doesn't glamorize suicide or present it as a solution to someone's problems; they also specifically suggest not describing the method of death or using graphic images.
Additionally, several social media outlets — including Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram —have banned accounts and posts that promote self-harm, suicide, and eating disorder, so there has been an attempt to reduce this kind of graphic content. It's important to take these steps, but it's impossible to change the harsh reality that people in intense emotional pain will continue to glamorize self harm and suicide until they get the treatment they need and deserve.
Unlike news stories and social media posts, 13 Reasons Why is clearly fictional, but this scene is still potentially triggering. Suicide is devastating, and it should be depicted as such — I certainly don't think 13 Reasons Why should have sugarcoated or glossed over Hannah's choice to end her life. But, the sight of Mrs. Baker cradling her daughter's dead body and attempting to will her back to life was arguably the most devastating moment of the series.
The emotional impact of Hannah's suicide would have been equally gripping without a graphic depiction of the act itself.
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.