Trigger warning: This article discusses suicide, sexual assault and includes controversial opinions about those topics. The opinions are those of some interviewees, not those of the magazine or author.

Panic consumed Ian Keeler during episode three of 13 Reasons Why. He had to stop watching after one character willingly fell back into a pool and sunk deeper into the water.

Keeler stood up out of his chair, left his room and had a panic attack on his bathroom floor.

For him, the show was too real.

“It really visualized the feeling of sinking into despair,” he says.

When the Netflix original premiered last year on March 31, the 23-year-old OCAD University student says he was at the very beginning of life with depression.

“I actually had a friend of mine who had also lived with mental health issues recommend that I not watch the show ahead of time, but I was intrigued,” Keeler says.

In the show, Hannah Baker, one of the main characters, dies by suicide. Before her death, she leaves audio tapes behind explaining what and who influenced her suicide.

Although Keeler did not continue the 13-episode series, he followed the conversation around the contentious show. It gained global notoriety for its attempt to discuss mental illness and suicidality. Experts and teenagers debated whether the portrayal of these topics was realistic and helpful.

“The show seems to glamorize suicide, where the main character manages to get revenge on those who wronged her by implicating them in the tapes, which is the key plot point of the show,” Keeler says.

Other criticisms of the show faced included ignoring advice from mental health professionals and acting as inspiration for others to die by suicide. Although the criticisms were valid, the show creators built a website to point viewers to mental health resources and information.

 

 

But with the second season airing on May 18, it seems some think what the show did well overshadows what it did wrong.

Piranavan Thayalan, a University of Toronto Scarborough student, is one of them.

“I think it portrays mental health accurately because when I was going through a hard time, I saw myself in Hannah. That feeling of no one around you helping, no one around you caring. I felt mad and I felt alone,” Thayalan sys.

Thaylan says, like Baker, his friends became distant and that isolation left him feeling alone. And like Thayalan, Baker is only human. 

Baker’s divisive nature is the main source of the show’s controversy. She is impulsive, selfish, spiteful and those are just a few flaws. But aren’t these forgivable mistakes? Especially as a high school student trying to navigate through life while struggling to maintain her health?

Well, that’s the problem.

Most viewers – and frankly, the show producers – don’t understand mental health well enough.

Keeler says the show represents depression and suicidal thoughts with limited accuracy and that if it did display that reality, it would be difficult and wouldn’t be glamourous.

“It’s very internalized. Something like a headache; there are not outward symptoms yet it can cause so much pain,” he says. “What they don’t show is how you can go for days not doing basic things like getting out of bed or brushing your teeth.”

And you don’t need to live with depression for it to impact you.

“It can be frustrating because this is someone you care about and you want to help them and fix them, but depression has no easy fix,” Keeler says. “It can be exhausting and you have to be careful not to jeopardize your own mental health.”

Baker’s character coupled with explicit content and a dash of ignorance steal the spotlight in the show.

The insights viewers leave with prove it. One of the most graphic scenes was when Bryce Walker, an antagonist in the show, sexually assaults Baker in a hot tub.

“She did so many stupid things in the show. It was her fault she got raped. She had a choice, she could’ve stopped it,” Thayalan says. “It’s kind of Bryce’s fault too, but that’s just how he is. He is a jerk.”

Thayalan was not the only person interviewed who believed Baker was to blame for her own rape.

But with the second season airing on May 18, it seems some think what the show did well overshadows what it did wrong.

 

Another infamous scene was Baker’s suicide. In the show, she bleeds out in a bathtub, but in the novel, which inspired the show, she overdoses on pills. The book also doesn’t include other character’s suicides and a potential school shooter, among other things.

Rashida Kapadia, a UTSC student, never watched the show, opting for the novel. But even she saw Baker in the same light as Thayalan.

If both Kapadia and Thayalan could change the narrative, Baker would have lived.

“I would have made her stronger. She should have reached out, she should have told people how she was feeling, she should’ve tried to be happier,” Kapadia says.

Creating a more empowering character isn’t a bad idea, but it’s hard to say the show would have the same gravity without Baker’s suicide.

If people finish the series thinking everyone who lives with mental illness can become better with a forced smile and more effort, maybe the show is a sign of the same issue it tried to solvea lack of understanding about mental illness and suicide.

 

13 Reasons Why – Season 2 – May 18

The tapes were just the beginning. May 18.

Posted by Netflix on Monday, April 30, 2018

 

To someone who hasn’t lived with mental illness, they might see someone’s symptoms as a lack of effort, which adds to the already deadly, stigmatic cycle.

“She didn’t try to tell anyone, she didn’t talk to her parents and if I was her, I wouldn’t have done that,” Thayalan says.

13 Reasons Why does try to portray how mental illness affects people differently, but causes more confusion than clarity.

“Everyone deals with mental illness, it’s just a matter of how you cope with it,” Thayalan says.

Although people do have harder days or feel down, not everyone is diagnosed, has regular treatment or spends their entire life trying to manage their mental illness.

“It’s super tempting to try and suggest all these quick fixes like going out and making friends, but that’s just not how depression works. You feel like you’re doing something wrong, but you’re too tired,” Keeler says. “The best thing you can do is listen and encourage them to get professional help.”

While the show producers have a stark learning curve to apply in season two, viewers should not dismiss their attempt to create a dialogue.

“What’s special about 13 reasons why is not that she died, but her journey dealing with mental health issues,” Kapadia says.

She wants the next season to show the other side of mental health support.

“If someone reached out to the counselor, they are successful at it. This time, they don’t go to the places Hannah went and there’s a better outcome,” she says.

Others are hesitant to watch it at all.

Keeler wouldn’t recommend the show to anyone, but he may try to watch the second season after hearing what others have to say about it.

“I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t want others who are thinking about exploring mental illness in film to drop their projects because they don’t want to touch something that could be controversial.”

By Bobby Hristova

Photo by Adley Lobo and Bobby Hristova

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