The Problematic Portrayal of Mental Health in ‘13 Reasons Why’

By Stephanie Wong
Published on January 30th, 2021

WARNING: This article will contain mild spoilers for ‘13 Reasons Why’.

‘13 Reasons Why’ is a highly controversial teen drama based on the original 2007 novel by Jay Asher. The show’s first season focused on the story of Hannah Baker - a teenage girl who commits suicide and leaves behind cassette tapes in which she details why she chose to end her life, each tape focusing on a different person who she accuses of being somehow involved in her fateful decision. Throughout its four seasons, the series explores various contemporary social issues such as gun violence, drug addiction, and sexual assault. However, it is the show’s portrayal of one particular social issue that has been criticised heavily - mental health.

At the time of its release, the series was considered controversial for its inaccurate depiction of sensitive subject matters. While some praised the show’s writers for showing “authentic” graphic scenes depicting sexual assault and suicide, others were quick to criticise these scenes as needlessly triggering and only present for shock value. The infamous and now removed scene graphically depicting Hannah Baker’s suicide was condemned by the US National Alliance on Mental Illness for exploiting a topic this sensitive for entertainment purposes.

In fact, the show violated almost all conventional guidelines on depicting suicide. For this reason, many mental health professionals have criticised the show for handling the topic of suicide extremely irresponsibly. The show is ultimately a suicide revenge fantasy - throughout the show, Hannah Baker is mourned over by the people she blames for her death and is shown the love and support that she had never gotten in the time she was alive. This is an especially dangerous perspective to be showing to impressionable young viewers, as it romanticizes the act of suicide and completely fails to address the finality of Hannah’s decision. The show also poorly portrays Hannah Baker’s depression leading up to her suicide. A line that is frequently repeated throughout the first season by the classmates on Hannah’s tapes is: “Hannah’s life was no worse than anyone else’s. She was just a drama queen who wanted attention”. This perpetuates a dangerous misconception that only external factors are necessary in order to have depression or feel suicidal when it is in fact also a matter of one’s brain chemistry and genetic factors.

The show also fails to authentically depict mental illnesses in other characters. In later seasons, the character Clay Jensen is shown to have some form of an anxiety disorder while also having frequent hallucinations of Hannah Baker and Bryce Walker. These disorders do make sense in the context of the show, as Clay has gone through traumatic events through the series and was even hinted to have had underlying mental health issues in the first season. However, the show appears to dramatise and sensationalise his mental illnesses to an extreme extent, coming off as disingenuous and failing to explore the depth and complexity of the issues he suffers from.

Many other characters in the show that were meant to explore deeply complex mental illnesses come off oversimplistic and shallow. The writers of ‘13 Reasons Why’ seem to feel the need to give rational reasons as to why these characters end their own lives or engage in other extreme behaviours, completely failing to understand that most of the time mental health is much more complex. This failure is especially prevalent in the character Tyler Down. Throughout the first two seasons, he is continuously bullied, eventually escalating to him being sexually assaulted in a particularly graphic scene at the end of the second season. In the aftermath of this traumatic event, Tyler decides to attempt a school shooting. With this, the show’s writers send the inadvertent message that being bullied and assaulted is a justifiable reason to become a school shooter. In fact, in the Beyond The Reasons post-show discussion, the writers of the show admit that the sole reason behind the inclusion of the unnecessarily graphic scene was so that audience members would feel empathic towards Tyler. The fact that the show’s writers used something as serious as sexual assault as a plot device comes off incredibly cheap and manipulative. If the show’s writers actually established that Tyler Down was struggling with a mental illness and that this played a role in his decision to attempt a school shooting, there would be a message about how there needs to be more awareness and support for young teenagers with mental health issues. The opportunity to start this conversation, however, is completely missed by the show’s creators.

Another failure seen in the show is how they approach the character Skye Miller, who is revealed to have bipolar disorder. Her character, unfortunately, has little development throughout the show. Every scene with Skye references the fact that she self harms or depicts her in a state of mania. While not inaccurate to the disorder and certainly more authentic than their portrayal of Hannah’s depression in the first season, this lack of development makes Skye come off as a character who is defined by her bipolar disorder, rather than a well-rounded character who happens to struggle with the disorder. Most of the characters in ‘13 Reasons Why’ are written in a similar way, and are defined by a mental illness or tragic event. This depiction is drastically oversimplified and sends a damaging message to its audience.

‘13 Reasons Why’ had real potential to make a difference - perhaps in helping to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, promoting mental health care, or informing its viewers about the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses. While the show does admittedly have entertainment value in its over-the-top, melodramatic plotlines (especially in its later seasons), the show’s poor portrayal of mental health in its characters has ultimately had extensive damaging effects on its impressionable young audience.

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