13 Reasons Why is an American Netflix drama that follows the story of Clay Jensen as he discovers the reasons why his friend and crush, Hannah Baker, killed herself. Hannah had recorded 13 audio tapes where she narrates the reasons for her death.
The show has received widespread acclaim but has also been criticised sharply, most notably by Mike Hale of the New York Times, Rebecca Nicholson of The Guardian, MollyKate Cline – a mental health advocate – writing for Vogue, and Hank Stuever writing from the Washington Post. Most of the criticism centres around the unrealistic behaviours of the characters, the poorly contrived and far-fetched plot, and the lack of actual information about actual depression and suicide.
I want to make it clear that if you ever wanted to know what suicide and depression felt like, watch 13 Reasons Why, because I can confidently say that those criticisms are wrong.
Now, I do not know what form of demon Jay Asher channelled while writing the novel the show was based on, but it was a demon that felt far too familiar. Here’s the thing. I’ve been there in the shoes of both main characters Clay and Hannah. I’ve been depressed. I’ve attempted suicide. I’ve lived through the suicide of a friend. And, while I’ve never publicly declared it, I was severely bullied growing up. Trust me when I say that none of the criticism is correct, and I want to break down the show for everyone, and I will try to relate them to real life experience to show the importance of each points.
1. PTSD was why Clay Jensen could not listen to the tapes in one sitting
One of the major driver of the plot is that the main character, Clay Jensen, is suppose to listen to 13 tape recordings by Hannah detailing her suicide. The 13 tapes were previously heard by 9 other teens who all went through the tapes in 1 sitting. Jensen was unable to do so and could only listen to the recordings at bits and pieces of time. Mike Hale of NYT wrote:
…even though he could find out with just a few hours of binge listening. It makes no sense as anything but a plot device, and you’ll find yourself, like Clay’s antagonists, yelling at him to listen to the rest of tapes already.
– Mike Hale, New York Times
Clay Jensen was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD. The character woke up in cold sweat, having nightmares, lost appetite, and at one point, was unable to even bathe. Clay noticeably says that when he listens to the tapes, he sees and hears Hannah as if she was there with him. At the turning point of the story, he spends many episodes hallucinating.
Was PTSD used as a plot device? Yes. But everything in a story is a plot device. What it isn’t is a deus ex machina. It is a plot device in line with the character. Clay is more because his suffering is fleshed out. He is different because he is haunted.
When a friend of mine committed suicide, I was wrecked with the guilt of not having been able to do anything to help. I kept flashing back to my last conversation with him which took place on the road to the train station. For months after the news of his death, I could not walk the same route back without hallucinating his voice or flashing back to that day. Like Clay whose trauma was triggered by her voice, mine was by a stretch of road. And while the alternative road to the station took twice as long to walk, I did so anyway for close to 3 months.
2. The plot is random and confusing because that’s what depression is
Depression doesn’t come along all of a sudden, all of the time. It happens differently for different people and different cases. But one thing is true, depression is more often than not a culmination of multiple events that chipped away at the shell of a person until nothing is left, and that is what the show portrays fantastically.
4 different characters manoeuvred through this process throughout the show. Hannah is the most noticeable, her journey through depression took months, maybe years (I don’t know how American education timetable works). During that time frame, 13 events were identified that slowly chipped away at her shell until her inevitable death.
Alex Standall had it equally long. His journey started during one of the earlier flashbacks and lasted to the final episode in the present, where he shot himself in the head. His journey? Having been dumped by his girlfriend, indirectly breaking up the friendship of those close to him, hurting his friend, feeling guilty about Hannah’s death, and finally being unable to convince those around him to speak the truth.
Justin Foley and Clay Jensen both had their psyche broken through the short days of the episodes in the present time due to the revelations of the tapes. Both for different reasons. They both ended up at a point where they could jump, but both stepped away for different reasons as well.
My third bout of depression came after I watched an emotional television show followed by a few days of family unrest. That was all it took. In 2 weeks, I went from normal to suicidal. My fourth battle came after a year of constant failures stressed me to the breaking point. Everything came to a head when I was conscripted in the army. Two different time periods. Two different triggers. Both nearly cost me my life. What I’m trying to say is, depression comes differently, in different guises.
3. Hannah continued to socialize because depression is not just one emotion
There’s a misunderstanding that if you are depressed you must be sad all the time. That if you are depressed, you cannot laugh or show joy. You cannot be angry or frustrated. You just have to be sad. In the show, we see Hannah going to parties and joking with Clay, even falling in love, despite being in what must be the most terrible moments of her life.
But that is what makes depression so hard to diagnose. Because depression isn’t an emotion, it’s a state of mind. It’s not saying, “Boohoo, I’m sad!”. It’s the brain malfunctioning, forgetting to turn off what makes you get sad. But that doesn’t not mean you can’t be happy. After all, when you’re sad, you can still laugh at a joke. When you’re frustrated, you can still find something funny. While I was in my bouts of depression, I went about life normally. I went out with friends. I made jokes. I got angry. I fell in love. I fell out of love. I lived.
As Hannah said in the show, humans are social creatures. No matter how you are personality wise, you will take social joys when someone reaches out to you. Laughing, crying, raging, cursing, walking, running, partying, talking, these are all the body’s way of fighting back against loneliness, especially depression. That’s how you heal when depressed. You overpower the bad things with the good, and slowly, you try to climb out of the darkness.
4. Bullying does not need rhyme, just reason
Reading a young-adult novel in one sitting, it’s easier to suspend your disbelief regarding Hannah’s copious misfortunes, which include broken friendships, a fatal auto accident and sexual violence. We’re meant to see that there’s an emotional and practical order to these events — Hannah’s diminished standing and waning self-confidence lead to new incidents of bullying or abandonment. But the show doesn’t make her downward progress convincing. – Mike Hale, New York Times
Here’s the thing, Hale never really specified why he thought the show was not convincing. I can only assume he meant that the order of scenarios were implausible. After all, how could the show possibly take a name on a ‘best of’ list and turn the end result into rape?
But that’s what bullying does. You do not need a rhyme to do it. You just need a reason. Look at all the hate refugees are getting from around the world. Just because a few people do some bad things, now, millions of them are considered plagues to society. No rhyme, just reason.
Here’s another example. When I was young, I was transferred to another school in my second year. My title as the ‘new kid’ at my new school gained me some attention. That attention quickly turned into me being tied up to a netball post and beaten by 10 seniors that I have never met. At first, it was simply because I was the ‘new kid’ that I became a ‘target’. And once I was a ‘target’, I was the ‘daddy’s boy’, the ‘fat ass’, the ‘wannabe’, ‘public enemy number one’, and the list goes on. All that happened simply because I was the ‘new kid’.
So yes, sometimes, it’s just those few things that changes your life. Most of the time, you don’t even know it happened.
5. Depression does make life worse, and worse, and worse…
As depression goes on, your psyche changes. In the show, we see how all the negativity and doubts in Hannah’s character eventually led her to rejecting the advances of the Clay Jensen, her mutual love. In the show, the trigger for Hannah’s depression is something known as ‘slut shaming’. Because of how it affected her view of herself, she saw herself as a slut, and unfit to be loved.
Eventually, feeling like a failure, she even distanced herself from her parents. Slowly, from a strong, self-identified girl, she was broken until she found no logical reasons in her own mind to live. Even if the world did not see it that way, even if everyone disagreed, she thought she deserved to die.
My most common thought in depression is that I am a terrible human being, and that everyone around me deserves someone better than me in their lives. In fact, to my mind, I was a negative aspect, and that if I simply stopped existing, it would make their lives better. I alienated classmates. I alienated coworkers. I alienated friends and families. All because I thought they deserved something better.
6. Depression can be born out of hate
It’s an unbelievable and selfish conceit, a protracted example of the teenager who fantasizes how everyone will react when she’s gone.
– Hank Stuever, Washington Post
If you think that what the main character, Hannah, did was selfish, then you do not understand what fuels depression. Because depression does not need to be born out of misery of self. It can be born out of frustration and hatred for the world around us. The ‘look what you’ve done to me?’ view.
There are scenarios in life that are out of your control, and you rely on the kindness and goodness of others to carry on through those terrible times. And when those people fail you, in the addled state of depression and suicide, it can feel like they are at fault.
When I was suicidal in the army, one of the plan for my suicide was to throw myself off the roof during any marching ceremony requiring full attendance. I wanted to land splat on the ground in front of everyone, because everyone had ignored what I perceived as my requests for help. I wanted to die, wearing their uniform, in the most brazen way possible, just so everyone will know that yes, it was all their fault. I fantasized about it constantly. I dreamt about it all, because to me, it all made sense. The world tore me apart, and I wanted some semblance of balance to return, even in my death.
7. Depressed people makes mistakes often
This one is on me. While watching the show, I could not help but think that Hannah was a terrible person for sending out these tapes that could hurt other people the same way they hurt her. Then I remembered what depression is. It’s the illogical thing, just like suicide.
Depression puts your mind in a place where the only thing that makes sense is what your mind can comprehend at the time. The rest of your brain has shut down. Gone into defensive mode to protect what’s left of your sanity. In that state, you have to make sense of things quickly, or lose your mind, so your brain takes complex scenarios and events and compresses them into a few simple ideas, consequences be damned.
In the show, after writing a heartfelt letter to the character Zach as a plea to stop bullying her, Hannah mistakenly thinks she saw him throw the note away, even when he kept it. It was likely her mind trying to comprehend information at a rate that could help put things in perspective in her addled state.
I met a cutter once. They cut their wrist to the point where they had to wear braces to cover the scars. When I asked them why, they answered that they cut because it makes the pain go away (out of their wounds). It’s silly, and nonsensical, but in that mindset, it makes sense. When you cut, your body releases natural endorphins to cope with the physical hurt. But those same endorphins triggers the same receptors in the brain that doles out happiness. And when you’re in constant pain, it makes sense. It’s a 1+1×0=2 thing. It’s wrong, but it makes sense.
8. The show is not about beating depression
That’s right. This is not a show about that one hero that manages to defeat the demons inside them and beat depression, coming out to live life happily ever-after. This is about the time when you fail. This is a story about the thousands of people who are dying everyday from suicide and the lives of those left behind.
That’s why when I watched 13 Reasons Why, I immediately saw some red flags. One of those flags was that talking to your parents and getting help when you need it wasn’t portrayed successfully in this series.
– MollyKate Cline, Vogue
The truth is, MollyKate Cline, this is the reality of the situation. Just because the show doesn’t portray it, does not mean it is not real. The failure should not be thrown aside simply to make someone feel better about themselves. Because while families are the first line of defence, they are not the last. But if every single one of those lines fall, it’s over.
That’s the reality of depression and suicide. You don’t win all the time. My friend won when a teacher saw he needed help when his family couldn’t. Another won when I reached out when no one else wanted to. I won because literally, at my final line of defence, a stranger picked up a phone and decided to talk with me. But I knew someone who lost when all those lines failed, and his story is the one being told here. Not mine. Not yours. It’s not the story of those who lived.
13 Reasons Why is the story of those who died.
9. Just because you find help doesn’t mean you live
We should be watching real-life, sit-down conversations with parents that show how to ask for help surrounding mental illness, bullying, or anything else.
– MollyKate Cline, Vogue
The counsellor in the show, Mister Porter, is shown to be the last person to fail Hannah. People need to understand that when you are suicidal, finding help is the last resort. It’s an admittance that you have a problem, that you are not ‘normal’, and that your life will never return to what it was before.
It’s terrifying and life changing. And sometimes, just because you looked for help, doesn’t mean the help is right. Just like how Mister Porter’s view of rape pushed Hannah away, countless of mentally ill individuals around the world suffers from these mental care professionals mixing their personal beliefs with helping people. We see this everywhere. Even in churches with pastors saying, “Pray it away.” The line I hate most because of the number of lives lost to it.
While conscripted during my first year in the army, I was denied treatment by the army’s psychiatrist when I first came out as sick. The rejection was devastating, and I was sure I would kill myself before the year ended. That was me, reaching out for help. And that was me, not receiving it, because the stigmatised view of ‘malingering’ in the army was prevalent. I got lucky through a series of coincidences that placed me on the list for counselling services. The counsellor I met helped me, and probably prolonged my life long enough to get proper medical treatment. I got lucky, but my last line of defence could have failed me just as well as Hannah’s.
10. In reality, you’re not mentally ill, until you are
Once more to MollyKate Cline.
13 Reasons Why isn’t addressing depression or any other mental illness — in fact, they never mention those words once in the whole series.
– MollyKate Cline, Vogue
13 Reasons Why doesn’t address depression or other mental illness is simply because they show it. Mental illness is not something you have. It’s something you get. Like me, you are not bipolar until you are. Like Hannah, Clay, Alex, and Justin, you are not clinically depressed until you are. Like Jess, you are not an alcoholic until you are. Like Tyler, you’re not psychopathic until you are.
MollyKate Cline, if you are reading this, I want you to know that this is personal, because you claim to be an advocate for mental health awareness. But it seems your knowledge in the reality of the situation is sorely lacking. Because this is the reality of mental illness. Many people who have mental illnesses don’t know they have them, and that’s what was portrayed in 13 Reasons Why. Most people who need help don’t know it, until they do. It took me 10 years of suffering before I could even put a name to my condition.
I didn’t know there was a name for what I had until I found it. And I didn’t know I was going to kill myself until the day that I tried to.
11. Suicide seems unbelievable, until it isn’t
The story strikes me as remarkably, even dangerously, naive in its understanding of suicide, up to and including a gruesome, penultimate scene of Hannah opening her wrists in a bathtub.
– Hank Stuever, The Washington Post
I wonder about its handling of suicide, which again is depicted graphically; one of the adult characters says there’s never really any way of knowing why Hannah did what she did, and I found myself on his side in that, even though I don’t think that is what we’re being led to feel.
– Rebecca Nicholson, The Guardian
In the final episode, there is a gruesome scene where Hannah’s last moments slitting her wrists in a tub is shown. Hank Stuaver of WP states that everything seems contrived. But here’s the thing, there is no ‘natural’ way for suicide and depression to move to. There is no manner in which the act of taking ones own life seems normal. Suicide is unbelievable. Depression is unbelievable. Those are worlds in which most people will never see, understand, or experience.
I found the suicide scene to be brutally realistic. It shook me. I had to actually pause the show because even though films of torture and gore never moved me, that scene hit me where it hurts, because it was how it nearly went down for me. It was so close to the scenes of the days I nearly took my own life. I have never watched any other show that could so fundamentally depict the loneliness and pain of attempting suicide.
Suicide should not be depicted as anything else aside from the gruesome truth. That’s how it ends for many of us. Most of the time, you don’t get a soundtrack. You don’t get nice clothes to go out in. You’re in the darkness of a private space and bleeding to death, or standing alone on the edge of a roof, pushing yourself closer.
People like to say there’s no way to know, but that is simply not true. As cliché as it may seem, you simply need to believe it is possible, and from there on, you may know. Believe your kids when they tell you they had a bad day. Believe your students when they say they feel uncomfortable at attention. Believe them when they say they’ve been raped. Then, try, just try to make things right.
12. Sometimes, you still fail
However, my problem is that the audience is shown what not to do without examples of what they actually should do.
– MollyKate Cline, Vogue
Here’s the thing, even if you get everything right, with family, friends, and professionals all on the look out for warning signs, you might still fail. And we see this clearly throughout the show where despite family members being taught of things to look out for in depression and suicide, most of the parents’ attentions flew over the heads of their kids throughout the show.
And again, that’s how it is. For parents and adults in general, like what many of these critics have done, is look at children with a black and white mindset. Throughout the show, we see adults looking at kids either as ‘good kids’ or ‘bad kids’. Yet the writers managed to colour the kids as people who had varying shades of grey. Some made mistakes. Some did their best. Others tried to make things right.
That is the key. If you are not able to see other people as varying degrees of complexity and only understand things as right and wrong, it is likely a person who needs your help will pass right by your eyes without you even blinking. And honestly, sometimes, it doesn’t get better. You just have to make do with things until it does.
13. Clay Jenson shows that it’s all in the little things
With that, we come to the final point of it all. In one of the final scenes of the show, we see Clay Jenson approach a girl who had been cutting her wrist, and reaches out a hand of friendship, despite their relationships having been strained before. Honestly, that was all what the show tried to tell us. Be good to people and fix your mistakes.
Don’t spread rumours about others (Justin). Don’t judge people without understanding (Jess). Don’t step on others selfishly (Alex). Don’t invade other’s privacy (Tyler). Don’t betray people (Courtney). Don’t treat people as objects (Marcus). Don’t put yourself above others (Zach). Don’t steal (Ryan). Own up to your mistakes (Sherri). Don’t be a douche (Bryce). Don’t be prejudicial (Porter). Be kind (Clay).
That’s it. Be kind. If you want to help someone, that is all you need. Honestly, even if you follow all these rules, people might still slip through the cracks. But when someone reaches out to you, these are the little things you need to do to change someone’s world.
And maybe, just maybe, give them a reason to live.