TW: suicide, rape. Contains spoilers.
Back when the Netflix drama, 13 Reasons Why, was released, I got a tad obsessed and wrote two blog posts, one following each season (which you can read here and here). The first post was picked up by Radio Five Live and BBC Two for the Victoria Derbyshire show — my exciting TV debut! They were doing a short segment about the “controversial” suicide scene at the end of Season One, with somebody from the Samaritans, a head teacher and me as a “fan of the show”. I didn’t want to disagree with the other guests as I very much support the Samaritans and the work they do, but I believe that the intentions of the writers and producers of 13RW was ultimately to raise awareness of mental health issues, behaviours and their causes. I respect that Netflix has now decided to take the scene out, though it does make me wonder why after two years, when most people have probably seen it anyway.
I found the suicide scene very hard to watch, so much that I looked away, but I understood why it was important to be shown. The impact of following Hannah’s character so closely, only to sit with her for those long few minutes while she took her own life, was devastating. That’s the point. The scene where she was raped was just as disturbing, as was the scene at the end of season two, where Tyler is sexually assaulted. Will these be edited out too? I doubt it. I’m certainly not one of those free speech advocates who calls people snowflakes (those kind of people are normally fighting for their right to say something hateful or abusive), I’m interested in the hypocrisy of how mental health is dealt with on TV and in films.
The Samaritans were keen, from the start, to get the scene taken out, saying that “it’s important this is done in a responsible way.” They were concerned it may spark copycat attempts. I mean, have they seen it? I don’t think the people I spoke to on Radio Five Live or BBC Two had. Nicky Campbell talked about Nicole Kidman — he’d mixed it up with a different show! The scene is not glamourous at all. It’s not something anyone would want to copy, unless they already had very strong suicidal thoughts. In my previous blog posts, I’d likened it to Trainspotting and how people said that “glamorised” heroin. As a person who watched Trainspotting as a teenager, I can tell you it definitely worked better than any anti-drugs info we were given at school. I didn’t not want to take heroin, ever.
Following the show, there were reports of research showing both positive and negative online search terms. There was an increased number of searches for “how to kill yourself”, but also increases in search terms such as “suicide hotline”, “teen suicide” and “suicide prevention.” We also won’t know if any of the people searching how to do it actually did it, if they were thinking about it, or were merely questioning how realistic it was, or if they were fiction writers — known for having particularly dodgy search histories. There was a huge amount of support for the show on Twitter, from personal stories from people who could relate, to people painting their nails blue (yes, even I did that) as a tribute to Hannah and those of us that have been in her shoes, but fortunately found a way out of the darkness.
13 Reasons Why stood by their decision to leave the scene in despite the backlash, for the last two years. So why now? Maybe it was a condition to get a third season? Maybe it’s to promote their forthcoming third season? Or maybe they had a change of heart. Times change and we change our minds. I doubted myself lots of times since following my TV and Radio debut. I wondered if I really wanted to be the person to go against the Samaritans. I really don’t. I respect their views, but also there are lots of trigger warnings used in the show and some responsibility must sit with the viewer/parents. However, my issue now isn’t exactly with cutting the scene, but rather on a wider scale about what society deems socially responsible.
People who starred in Love Island have taken their own lives, yet the show is still on and people love it more than ever. EastEnders has used suicide plots for years, and of course there are so many films with a suicide, or a “threatening to jump”, scenario. Even family films and our favourite Christmas films (think It’s a Wonderful Life) have what screenwriters call the “save the cat” moment involving an attempted suicide where we think they’re going to do it but someone “saves the cat” at the last minute. It’s a device used by writers to add tension. The character attempting suicide is often talked down just by a regular person, quite quickly and easily. Is this responsible? Sending a message that someone who is suicidal can just be talked round in a few moments? Is it responsible to include suicide as a plot twist? No, it’s not. Our mental health problems should not be reduced to tension-building screenwriting tools. Writer, producers and directors have a social responsibility to help people question the injustices in our society, which is exactly what 13RW did. They used storytelling to help so many people who have experienced some of the trauma Hannah went through, and raise awareness of the severity of some of the behaviours we excuse every day.
13RW made people scared and uncomfortable, which sometimes is necessary. It gave us a wake-up call. The things we watch for “entertainment” and the things we pass off as silly teenage struggles, like being teased at school, can have catastrophic effects. I have been that person who has been bullied. I have been that person who has been subject to sexism. I have had to protect myself from men so many times, like so many other women. 13RW showed us a worst-case scenario, but I’m sure I’m not the only woman who has been through similar emotions and felt so helpless to the point of considering ending it all. Although “suicide contagion” (copycats) is certainly a thing, mental health difficulties are not contagious. People will already have had suicidal thoughts and mental health issues if they’re going to go through with it. Maybe we need to be focussing more on the reasons that cause mental health problems and the barriers to people getting help. This was surely the point of the show, to highlight these “reasons” so we as a society can try to help reduce the sexism, stigma, bullying, rape culture, discrimination and silencing that leads to these problems.
If we’re thinking about copycats, then what about perpetrators? Isn’t there as much chance of a bully getting ideas from the show and taunting a kid at school with a mop handle? The sexual assault on Tyler was such a traumatic scene to go through, then watching his growing anger of not being able to speak out too. This is a demonstration of the toxic masculinity being promoted in our society — a push towards aggression and anger instead of letting men show their softer emotions. People are often quick to point out that male suicide rates are higher than women’s, yet often they’re not keen to tackle the root cause by helping men get support to manage their emotions.
Society allows a huge amount of violence in films and TV, as long as it’s palatable and not too realistic. As a screenwriter myself, I went to a BBC screenwriting talk last year where they showed a man shooting himself in the head to demonstrate a “surprise” plot twist. So we can write about suicide when it’s in an entertaining way? This is potentially more dangerous than a realistic suicide scene as it’s watering down mental health issues and suicide, reducing it to merely a light-hearted plot point. Every day we’re consuming media, online and offline, which tells us to be thin, be sexy, be feminine, be confident but don’t talk too much, be independent but make boys happy, don’t be frigid but don’t be a slut. It goes on.
13RW makes the audience walk in the shoes of a fairly average young woman, going through awful things that many young women, unfortunately, have to go through. These are not just plot twists of American High School movies, this stuff happens in real life and it’s severely affecting the mental health, of both young people and older. The trauma of things that happen at school can stay with you for your entire life and can affect your confidence and mental health. I think 13RW upset people, because it showed some truths that people just do not want to confront. So the scene has gone. Will it make much of a difference now? The point is still lost on people. The Bryce’s of the world will always be the cool guys in films and always be the athletes who get away with assaulting girls in real life. Mental health will always be fixable in films. People will take their own lives, in the real world, and people will console themselves with Love Island. Maybe the world we live in is just one big ironic plot twist.
If you’re struggling, reach out for help:
Samaritans 116 123
Mind 0300 304 7000