Before I begin: You and your life are more important than any television show could ever be. I wanted to offer some resources for folks who are struggling with suicidal ideation, whether or not it’s because of what this show brought on (and/or for their loved ones who want to help):
- An example of peers doing beautiful, rather than terrible, things: “13 Reasons Why Not”
- 9 affirmations for people living with mental health problems
- 100 reasons to stay alive
- 101 self-care ideas for when it all feels like too much
- Alternatives to self-harm
- Create a “bad moment bag”
- How to ask for help
- Grief masterpost
- General suicidal ideation, self-harm, self-care, and mental illness recovery resources
- Suicide hotline numbers (and let me tell you based on my personal experience of working for a crisis hotline: Operators are trained and caring and want to be there for you)
- Also an option: Texting crisis line 741-741
- “Instructions for a Bad Day” spoken word poem by Shane Koyczan
- Tips on how to help a loved one who is struggling: 1, 2
- Things to say to someone who attempted suicide
- Recognizing suicidal behavior
- Myths and truths about adolescent and young adult suicide
- Responding to and showing solidarity with sexual assault survivors
Now, onto the promised content.
Spoiler alerts for season 1.
I’ll admit it: I was really excited for the show. I read the book when I was 16 and it touched my heart at a time when I needed it. When I watched the show, I was 23 and much more aware. I was a sexual assault survivor, no longer self-harming or dealing with consistent suicidal ideation, though always living with the past and the strength it required and gave me. I knew it would be hard to watch, but I didn’t think too much about it. I watched the show and loved it, albeit with many more lived experiences under my belt that left me with feelings of it being problematic. Then I thought about it some more, and some more, and read troubling article after troubling article about how it was making people with self-harm histories want to self-harm, how the show’s producers ignored nearly every recommendation they received from suicide experts about how to actively prevent suicide clusters after the show, and how the issue of revenge suicide is a real one (it’s one of the top 5 reasons that people consider, attempt, or die by suicide) – and this show could be encouraging teenagers with people who have hurt them to say “enough is enough” – not by seeking and creating new, healthy relationships and boundary-building, but by killing themselves.
Here are the many reasons why I no longer recommend the show.
- Told through Clay’s eyes, the show subtly implies that significant others can save their partners from suicidal ideation with enough love. Mental illness isn’t cured by love; it can, however, be treated with many helpful tools such as therapy, medicine, and the strong sense of belonging in a community. Telling people that love stops suicide is just wrong, and it leaves partners with an immense sense of guilt.
- Survivors of suicide – those who are left behind after a loved one dies by suicide – have enough reasons that they feel guilty already. Anyone who has a loved one die by suicide, or even try to die but manage to live, knows that there are endless “what if”s that come afterward. The thought of receiving a tape is chilling and terrible – and we see what it does to each of the characters on the show.
- The sexual assault scenes are horrifically and unnecessarily graphic and triggering.
- So is the suicide – and again, that goes against so much of what suicide organizations say to do when reporting about suicide.
- People who have survived suicide attempts face many difficulties that the show fails to mention – and oftentimes, people survive suicide attempts, so this could have been a helpful conversation.
- The school counselor fails to do his job in a way that may cause other students to not trust their school counselors. Showing people that the average adult is clueless and victim-blaming is dangerous. There are unproductive and unhelpful conversations about self-harm, suicidality, and rape that happen every single day, but when people are feeling lost, they need to know that not every adult is a fool or horrifically awkward about these things. There needed to be some way to wrap this up that showed that there were many viable options for her to get help, and she chose not to use them.
- This story shines light on an unexpectedly common aspect of suicide attempts – revenge – in an exceedingly unhelpful way that could spark other revenge-related suicides.
- The dialogue from adults’ unwillingness to label what Hannah is experiencing as mental health issues makes it seem that many suicides would be unlinked – but the two are intimately linked, and the show missed a vital opportunity to reduce the stigma around naming mental illness and getting treatment for it.
- The narrative of the star athlete who, in all likelihood, gets away with sexual assaults – despite his confession – continues the victim-blaming, rape culture world that we live in that shows that no matter what, there’s no justice for the wicked deeds of the world.
- Their decision to have a second season, though it certainly aims to show the kind of grief that lasts long after someone takes their life, implies to a certain extent that there is a future after suicide. There’s not.
- Who was the target audience? Was it people with mental illness who are considering suicide? People who are trying to know the signs so that they can prevent suicide? Students who wonder why their classmates have suicidal ideation or even kill themselves? Perhaps that was a question I should have asked of the book when I was 16 (but, to be fair, I was 16 and I wanted a boy like Clay to be in love with me, though I would be alive for my experience of the romance). It’s too triggering and poorly-done to be helpful to those considering suicide (other than, perhaps, showing them step-by-step how to do it). Its focus is on the people who hurt her rather than the signs of depression she was showing. Who is this for? This show misses its target audiences entirely. Through memes on Twitter, it’s easy to see that it’s just a joke to many – the people for whom the show would not be as triggering; through articles like this and countless others, it’s easy to see that those with mental illness are not being helped and may, in fact, be actively hurt by the portrayals on this show.
- The book’s main takeaways – that you really don’t know what someone is going through, so be kind and love others without judgment – is muddled by all of the different triggering aspects of the show. Rather than creating a productive conversation about suicide, this show rather serves to highlight how sad it is that people hurt Hannah, which is important, but in the end, the vast majority of people who have been hurt by others – even as badly as Hannah has been – can get through with help. Parents, educators, and peers can, and should, share the morals without watching this show. Here are some talking points for adults to share with young people who have watched the show.
Long story short, the show has the potential to be deeply damaging. Share the morals without sharing the show, and if you want to watch the show, make sure to be aware of the triggers that abound, and to talk with someone about the show after (and parents, if your kids watch it, make sure you talk to them).
Friends, share the morals of compassion and helping others who are struggling without sharing the show. It’s not written for the people who need it most, and it doesn’t show that there are ways to get help. You are beloved.