A Writer’s Perspective On Why ’13 Reasons Why’ Gets Mental Illness Right

Everyone’s experiences with mental health are different. One story can’t portray that. It’s not possible.

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I’ve read the book. I’ve watched the show. I’ve read the articles and the comments and my friends’ reactions to the story.

As a writer, I am disappointed that so many people aren’t seeing this show the way it was meant to be seen.

I’m not here to say my opinion is right and everyone else is wrong. But as a professional storyteller, and someone who has personally experienced issues with mental health, please allow me to present things from a bit of a different perspective.

For some context, 13 Reasons Why is a Netflix original series based on a book about a girl sharing the reasons why she killed herself. That’s as basic as the premise gets. Hannah records 13 tapes explaining how the actions of others affected her, and ultimately drove her to take her own life. The dramatic element is that the tapes get shared among everyone in Hannah’s life, and they’re used as a means of telling the “before.”

But pay attention to my summary of the show. One girl explains the reasons she believes she no longer wants to live.

That’s important. Because the criticisms of this show I’m seeing most often are that 13 Reasons Why assumes people kill themselves because of trauma and not because mental illness is a real thing that sometimes happens for no reason at all.

For starters, yes. Health crises like depression can drive a person to complete suicide without warning or cause. That is a fact and I’m not here to dispute it.

But here’s what people seem to be forgetting: this is a TV show. One story. About one person.

People don’t seem to have as much of an issue with how triggering the show can be for some people, or how graphic it is. Generally, people seem to understand that was purposeful.

But — as I see way too often — people seem to not understand that this show IS A SHOW, and not a complete academic summary of how mental health problems work in real life.

It’s almost like people expected this to be a TV show about a girl with depression who ends her life for no reason other than she’s depressed. No trauma, no triggers — it was just supposed to happen because of how devastating depression and similar conditions can be to a person experiencing them.

But who wants to watch a TV drama without any drama? No one.

This show was dramatic BECAUSE IT IS NOT REAL.

It is realistic, but not real. There is a difference.

Suicide is extremely dramatic, and people who deal with depression and other mental health issues suffer immensely as a result of their pain. Their pain is real, often physical, too. But in many ways, 13 Reasons Why is not a show about suicide. And it is definitely not a show about depression. It is a story about one girl’s experiences, and the events that led to her making the decision to complete suicide.

It was never supposed to be a story about how mental illness drives people to cause harm to themselves. It is not a documentary about suicide. Neither was the book a journalistic piece documenting the realities and statistics surrounding depression in teenagers. It is literally one fictional story about a girl who is bullied, who is affected so deeply by the way she is treated that she comes to the conclusion that the only way to end her pain is to end her life.

If you want to hear real stories about real people who are suicidal because of mental health issues and their many side effects and co-occurring conditions, there are plenty of resources, studies, and essays on the internet. But a Netflix show based on a fictional story from one person’s fictional perspective is not going to fill that need for you. It never tried to.

And speaking to those who have criticized this show for “glorifying” suicide, please explain to me how that’s the case. Because I have never myself been suicidal, yet that scene in the last episode (you know the one) was extremely difficult for me to watch. IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN. Hannah received zero reward for what she did. She wasn’t looking for one. She was trying to wrestle with her depression, and understand its hold on her.

If you paid any attention to the show, you’ll recall that after recording the first 12 tapes, having worked through and acknowledged all of her pain, Hannah went to an adult to ask for help. In a way, the tapes were like a journal, sort of helping her understand what led to her feeling the way she felt — which made her realize that she could not overcome it on her own.

That’s why the 13th tape is so devastating. Because Hannah wanted to live. But she felt she couldn’t anymore. At that point, her depression became the sole influence of her thoughts and her behavior. And the results were fatal.

Does that sound like a story trying to imply that suicide somehow makes you a hero?

To me, it sounds like a story about how others’ behaviors can influence a person’s view of themselves, enough to trigger any mental health thought patterns or behaviors they may have been predisposed to even if they never showed signs of them before.

If you can’t differentiate between fiction and reality, you shouldn’t be watching shows like this. I’m not saying you can’t — you can do whatever you want. But how can you sit there and complain about a story not being “real enough” when IT’S FICTIONAL?

Depression, suicide — all issues relating to mental health are real and serious. I will always advocate for stories that portray realistic stories about mental health. But what their audiences need to understand is that one story cannot portray every person’s experiences. You can’t expect one show to reflect your or someone else’s story exactly “right.” One story can only show and tell so much about one subject.

But you can expect that shows like 13 Reasons Why will not hesitate to remind you that whether someone is depressed or not, treating people like they’re less than you has consequences. Ultimately, I think that’s something the show’s writers and directors wanted to get across.

I’m sorry if you didn’t get out of this show what you were expecting, but it’s not the only story out there about these topics. Keep looking. There are more stories out there than you apparently realize. Find the one(s) that speak to you and share them. Or, if you have your own story to tell — there are supportive communities both online and off that will allow you to do that freely.

But don’t call one show a “failure” for doing what it’s supposed to do: tell a story. It may not have sent out the messages you yourself wanted to hear, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t send out the ones it was originally created to do.


Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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