Watching “13 Reasons Why” brought back a lot of memories and emotions from my own horrible high school years. It also made me realize anew that suicidality is still a mystery and, too often, a shameful secret that can claim too many lives. We do need to talk about it, as the show supposedly intends. However, we need to talk about suicidality, trauma and depression in ways that foster hope, healing, and life. The series may get the conversation going, but not in any healthy or helpful ways.
If I had my way, I’d remove the show from Netflix and cancel the upcoming season without hesitation. Suicide needs to be talked about openly and honestly; it should never be “entertainment.” This show is dangerous because it breaks all the rules about minimizing contagion (more about this here) and it confirms what too many at-risk people believe to be true. Too many adolescents (and more than a few adults) already believe the voices of depression that are deceitful and convince the sufferer that they are worthless and beyond help. Suicide should not be inevitable for anyone, not even the Hannahs of the world.
The show glamorizes suicide more than I could have imagined. From what we see of Hannah, she felt unseen, unheard, and powerless in her life. However, after her death she has a tremendous amount of power. She changes the lives of the thirteen people she blames for her situation. Her feelings are understandable and relatable. Conversely, the power trip she goes on in death is one of the least realistic and most dangerous parts of the show. When you die by suicide, you don’t get to watch people suffer under the guilt you pour on them as you tell them what they did to you that made you want to die. You don’t get power in death. In reality, the opposite is true: you get power in choosing life.
I know this to be true. I was a lot like Hannah, and the reasons behind her pain and depression are real enough. I remember being bullied routinely and I’m grateful that there was no social media when I was in high school. I was that traumatized, suicidal girl. The show gets the feelings of isolation and misery correct. What it misses entirely is the fact that there are people who care even if the one suffering from depression isn’t aware. The portrayal of Hannah suffering without anyone knowing is unrealistic to say the least. If this were a real story and not the life-threatening fiction it is, it would not be possible that all her peers were hateful, spiteful people. It would not be possible that not one teacher in her whole high school experience saw her pain. It would not be possible for the guidance counselor to be so totally inept to the point of blaming her for being raped and being unable to help because Hannah couldn’t say the words. It would not be possible that no adult in her life saw how much she struggled. It would not be possible that no person of faith was present to demonstrate God’s love for her. This show confirms the adolescent suspicion that adults are clueless about teenage life and pain, which is as risky as nearly everything else in the series.
When I engaged in suicidal behavior at the age of fifteen, several people responded not in guilt but in hopes of getting me to see that I had value. In fact, there were people who were aware of my pain even before I did something that made it clear that I was suffering. There were teachers who always asked how I was doing and let me know I could talk to them if I needed to. The fact that I was unable to find the words did not make their offers any less sincere. Some of my peers were worried about me and shared their concerns with responsible adults. Even my mother, who was often unaware of my needs, was trying to find resources for me. People didn’t know that I was suicidal but more than a few knew there was something wrong and they tried to help. I was not as alone and powerless as I believed I was at that time. In spite of the fact that I felt invisible, some people did see me. This is precisely the potentially life-saving reality of which the show robs its viewers. The fact is that in a school of hundreds and a town of thousands it is statistically impossible that not one person could say to Hannah, “I see you. I hear you. I care. I will listen to you and help you.”
And, yes, with therapy, treatment, and faith, I am one of the lucky ones; I lived. I found my voice. I found my power. I am profoundly grateful for the life I have and for all those who contributed to me staying alive long enough to enjoy it. “13 Reasons Why” is an adolescent revenge fantasy that should never have made it to the air. It As weird as this may sound, the best “revenge” is living, and living well. All those who made my life miserable and told me that I would never be anyone or anything were all wrong. I take pride in who I am and the fact that I have done more than survive.
If you are struggling with suicidality and don’t believe you have any value or that world would be better off without you, reach out now. You are not alone. There are people who care about you and want you to live long enough to heal the pain you are currently experiencing. Whatever you are facing, your life, your identity, your value is far more than your current circumstances. You are a beloved child of God and you are loved. Suicide is not the answer.
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe is an author, and the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN. You can find links to her blog, video series, and books at Beachtheology.com