Most of us understand that good intentions alone are usually not enough to tackle complex problems. Netflix's new show, 13 Reasons Why, one of the most popular TV shows of the year, is a great example of this universal truth. In defense of recent international negative press about the show, Selena Gomez, Hollywood celebrity and one of the show's executive producers said, "I just wanted it to come across in a way that kids would be frightened, but confused, and in a way that they would talk about it because it's something that's happening all the time."
The show chronicles the suicide of teenager Hannah Baker through 13 audiotapes she creates before she dies. Each episode reveals the contents of these tapes as they detail why Hannah blames certain people for her death.
A mainstream television drama show that could have potentially shifted the discourse on depression and suicide for young people, instead has left many young viewers more confused.
While suicide itself is frightening and confusing, portraying it in a frightening and confusing manner is arguably not a healthy or positive solution. Disappointingly, it reinforces just how unimaginatively Hollywood utilises its influence in storytelling. A mainstream television drama show that could have potentially shifted the discourse on depression and suicide for young people, instead has left many young viewers more confused.
Globally, there is much more awareness today about mental health problems than there has been in previous decades. The need to create safe spaces for young people to engage with mental health and access mental health information and services is undeniable and urgent.
Set amidst teenage and cyber bullying, sexual assault, rape and physical violence, sex and drugs, 13 Reasons Why does an excellent job of presenting the grim realities of a middle and upper-middle class high school in the US, or even some parts of India today. Unfortunately, it completely glosses over many positive avenues for help that young people do have access to, and the alternatives to suicide. Though the show does raise the incredibly important and complex issues of suicide, body shaming, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse, it sidesteps the conversation about mental health, mental illness and depression.
Today, the mental health of young Indians is in a state of crisis, where suicide is a leading cause of death. In this context, it's so important to introduce the idea and fact of recovery. Having personally struggled with anxiety for a brief period of time a few years ago, I recall feeling completely lost, isolated, and very afraid to talk to anyone. This was at a time when social media was not inundated with content and posts about anxiety, depression or well-being.
The show's conclusion, "It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other... it has to get better,"... is dissonant and almost insincere...
Watching 13 Reasons Why made me feel both helpless and hopeless. The show's conclusion, "It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other... it has to get better," while a very powerful and pertinent message is dissonant and almost insincere, when considering the actual story. It begs the rather dark questions: Would a story that was honest in acknowledging how difficult, complex and diverse mental health problems can be, really interest viewers? Or, would a story of recovery, healing and health yield the kind of TRPs this plot line did (think: "13 Reasons Why Not"). I wish now that I had access then to the kinds of support and conversations on positive mental health that are so much more freely available now.
I believe that at many points across the episodes, tiny tweaks to the storyline could have impacted a viewer profoundly differently, or shown them that there are other real help options available to them. A small example in the show is how it chooses to put a spotlight on only the inefficiencies and overburdened nature of the mental healthcare system, almost running the risk of demonising a school counsellor, parents or trusted adults, as sources of help and support. What remains unclear even at the end of the episodes is to whom or where to go if you struggle with a difficult situation or a mental health problem.
Many young people, like those I work with in our programs, know what the show is about and are able to discern how watching it affects their own mental health or that of those around them. I would like to share two of these comments which encapsulate this well.
A young advisor on our youth mental health program, It's Ok To Talk said: "13 Reasons Why gives you hope that what you couldn't change in your life would change with your death. I feel the show is scripted in a way where people relate more to Hannah, the victim, than to those whom she blamed for her death. So, the message of kindness that it carries is buried under the heavy threat to self-preservation." (Vedika Tibrewal, 20, New Delhi); and the second comment: "I think the show is more focused on showing why people commit suicide rather than why they shouldn't... A lot of people my age think that the show is great because of the chemistry between Hannah and Clay but that's really not the point of it. It ends up focusing on all the wrong things and feels like it's influencing teenagers to commit suicide." (Debkanya Bhattacharya, 17, Kolkata). Both comments left me feeling very uneasy.
While staying silent about [the kinds of challenges faced by teens] is not an answer, neither is an irresponsible telling of this reality.
"It has to get better" is a weak appeal. While kindness and compassion go a very long way, help-seeking for a young person is much more than this. Young people need to know that there are places they can go to, resources they can access for self-care (like online tools and books) and people they can talk to about anything, and anytime if they find themselves at such a crisis point. These services, albeit limited, do exist and are ever growing. While one cannot ignore the overwhelming reasons mental health challenges are pervasive today, not adopting a defeatist attitude towards promoting better mental health is vital at all costs.
Yes, the kinds of challenges depicted in 13 Reasons Why are lived by a large number of young people today. While staying silent about them is not an answer, neither is an irresponsible telling of this reality. Profits and ratings, couched in good intentions, should not be at the expense of a growing mental health crisis. If we cannot build a genuine dialogue around mental health on the need to invest in actually building resources and capacities that encourage and increase our knowledge and services that promote healing and recovery, and uphold every individual's right to better mental health—perhaps it is better to stay silent.
Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author.