This '13 Reasons Why' TV Show Writer Defends The Suicide Scene For A Very Personal Reason
Since debuting late last month, 13 Reasons Why has received widespread critical acclaim for its unflinching portrayals of potent, timely issues like bullying, sexual assault, and teen suicide. But it's also attracted its fair share of criticism, with many mental health organizations publicly chastising the Netflix series for depicting Hannah’s death in such graphic detail. In response to that criticism, 13 Reasons Why writer Nic Sheff has defended the suicide scene in a poignant op-ed for Vanity Fair. Warning: This post discusses suicide in ways that may be triggering to those who struggle with self-harm.
During the scene in question, Hannah, broken by her own depression and distraught by her peers' cruelty and abuse, climbs into her bathtub and visibly cuts her own wrists. It's an unsettling and emotionally brutal moment, but Sheff writes that he fought to include it for a deeply personal reason. As he explains in his essay, he wrestled with drug addiction and suicidal thoughts throughout his life. While producing the show, he relayed the story of his own suicide attempt to the other writers, telling them that it was his remembrance of another woman's suicide attempt that had forced him to stop himself.
"It was an instant reminder that suicide is never peaceful and painless, but instead an excruciating, violent end to all hopes and dreams and possibilities for the future. The memory came to me like a shock. It staggered me. And it saved my life."
He goes on to say that, when it came time to approach Hannah's suicide on 13 Reasons Why, it seemed, to him, the perfect opportunity to "dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse." He continued:
"It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all. In AA, they call it playing the tape: encouraging alcoholics to really think through in detail the exact sequence of events that will occur after relapse. It’s the same thing with suicide. To play the tape through is to see the ultimate reality that suicide is not a relief at all — it’s a screaming, agonizing, horror."
Others, however, have argued that the scene went too far, and could potentially glamorize suicide for those struggling with self-harm. Mental health foundations including Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) have pointed to research that indicates suicide exposure can lead to increased risk and possible suicide contagion.
It should be noted that the 13 Reasons Why finale opens with a disclaimer reading that “viewer discretion is advised,” but detractors have also chided the series for placing too much blame on the people in Hannah's life and failing to address how her mental health may have contributed to her decision to end her life. "The show actually doesn't present a viable alternative to suicide. The show doesn't talk about mental illness or depression, doesn't name those words," SAVE's executive director, Dan Reidenberg, told ABC News.
Sheff's own experience is certainly a valid contribution to the conversation, but depression is not a singular experience. To him, the scene read as a sobering confrontation of suicide's ugliest realities. But, to others, it could be triggering. Whether or not 13 Reasons Why's approach toward suicide was problematic doesn't have a simple answer, but one thing is clear: it's a discussion worth having.
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.