The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why is taking over the world right now, and with very good reason. The series, for those of you who haven't binge-watched it yet, follows the story of Hannah Baker, a high school junior who committed suicide...but before doing so recorded a series of tapes outlining the reasons and people that led her to feel that there was no option.
It's dark. It's scary. It's raw. It's intense and emotional. And it's the absolutely most important thing on TV.
For years depression and anxiety have been the ugly truths that no one wanted to talk about. Suicide has been the metaphorical 500 pound gorilla that somehow gets swept under the rug, yet there's a death by suicide in the United States every 13 minutes. Suicide Prevention gets overlooked so often by media outlets because cancer research, AIDS research, and highway safety are safer topics.
Thankfully the dialogue is changing. The emergence of To Write Love On Her Arms as a well-known advocate for suicide prevention has been a big part of it. In March, we hosted the first ever #LiveLifeLove Concert for Suicide Prevention to bring awareness to the problem and offer a message of hope. The success of 13 Reasons Why is just another step towards recognizing suicide prevention as something we should all embrace.
My wife and I binge-watched 13 Reasons Why over the weekend. You have no idea how hard it is to get through 13 hours of a show in 2 days with a 7-month old at home. But we did it. And this is my opinion and I hope you share it:
This is the most important thing to happen on TV in a very long time.
If you haven't already watched it, you should. And here's my reasons why 13 Reasons Why matters.
1) It brings suicide to light as a storyline. It's not PART of the storyline...it is THE storyline. And it's not just about how Hannah's suicide affects her. It's about how it affects everyone around her. Her parents, her friends, her teachers. It's a powerful message a la It's A Wonderful Life of how, no matter how much you think no one would care if you were gone, you couldn't be more wrong.
2) The narrative on anti-bullying: So often, bullying in schools is portrayed with more of a Screech from Saved by the Bell approach. The victim gets pantsed, or thrown in a locker, or made fun of for their clothing or their quirkiness. But in the end the victim always wins, right? He/she outsmarts the football player, or gets to join the cool kids group, or something like that. Not in 13 Reasons Why. Bullying is portrayed as what it really is - rumors, REALLY hurtful words, psychological and emotional warfare that chips away at the victim one incident at a time until they feel completely outcast and helpless. It's important that we see this. It's important that high school kids see this and see what kind of long-lasting damage can happen from "It was just a joke".
3) The focus on sexual assault: Without spoilers, sexual assault and rape culture are very much at the forefront of Hannah's story, both as a victim and a witness. Some of the most uncomfortable scenes in the series are centered around rape. They're hard to watch. They're painful and emotional, even if you don't have any experience with sexual assault. But the show doesn't JUST talk in terms of rapist/victim. It addresses the culture, especially in high schools and colleges, that encourages sexual misconduct. It addresses the victim-shaming that so often gets overlooked "Oh, well she's a slut"..."Oh, she was begging for it", etc. It's a very real, in-depth conversation about something that, like suicide, no one seems to ever want to talk about.
4) It makes depression relatable: So often in TV shows and movies, depression is depicted in the form of an outcast - the skinny guy with no friends that sits by himself at lunch, the girl that wears black eyeliner and listens to emo music. But that's a stereotype, right? Hannah Baker doesn't wear black eyeliner. She has friends. She dates the popular guys. But because she doesn't show the outward signs that we so often associate with depression, everyone just assumes she's okay. Which leads me to the next reason why 13 Reasons Why should be the television equivalent of "Required Reading"
5) It shows you the signs that can save someone's life: Most of the time, someone who is depressed or contemplating suicide isn't going to come up to you and say "I'm depressed". It doesn't work that way. Most people who are suffering are ashamed of their suffering. They feel like their pain is a burden on other people, or that other people's problems are more important than theirs. They're afraid of being labeled as crazy or dramatic, so they keep it inside. Outwardly, they may appear to be very happy, social people. They may be great students at school, or star co-workers, or your friendly next-door neighbor. As someone who has struggled off and on with depression since high school, I can assure you that not once have I told anyone that I was going through a hard time. Not once have I volunteered that information to friends. That's not how depression works. But I absolutely, at various points, in my life, have displayed the very same signs that Hannah Baker's friends didn't notice in 13 Reasons Why - loss of interest in social activities, anger and irritability, using words like "empty" and "alone". Here's a pretty good website (one of many, btw) that spells out some indicators that you can use to recognize when someone you love may be in need of someone to talk to.
And finally...and this is important....
6) 13 Reasons Why isn't just for high school kids: While high school obviously offers so many scenarios that can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts, it's a narrative that transcends years. Bullying and sexual assault still happen in all aspects of life. It might be the captain of the football team. It might be the CEO of the company or the guy buying you a drink at the bar. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts aren't relegated to 14-to-18 year olds. The reasons change, but the feelings don't.
So why should you watch 13 Reasons Why? Because it will affect you. It can't NOT affect you. And maybe, if it affects enough people, we as a society can affect change. We can help stop bullying. We can step forward and take a stand against sexual assault and make a conscious effort to stop promoting rape culture. And, most importantly, maybe we can save someone's life that wouldn't have been saved otherwise.
Know the signs. Know the cause. Educate yourself. Change the narrative.
There are countless reasons why.