How 13 Reasons Why is deconstructing teen depression, suicide
Will the hit Netflix show get teens talking about suicide, or give them ideas? Schools and parents are worried that the answer could be, both.health Updated: May 28, 2017 08:29 IST
‘I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.’
Netflix’s dark adaptation of Jay Asher’s cult young-adult novel, 13 Reasons Why, begins with Clay Jensen getting a box of 13 audiotapes from his classmate and crush Hannah Baker, two weeks after she killed herself.
Hannah has made one audiotape for each person, telling them what they did that led to her decision to slit her wrists and bleed to death in a bathtub.
People may love or hate the Netflix series, but no one is indifferent to it. “I hated it. I thought it glamourised suicide way too much,” says Sadhika Menon, 16. “I was bullied when I was 12 and having been there, I feel the show makes something that is not an option an option for people going through a rough patch.”
Sadhika got through her “rough patch” with her mother’s support. “I just burst into tears one day and said I didn’t want to go to school,” she recalls. But some anguished adolescents don’t know whom to turn to. Distress calls on school helplines in which teens refer to the hit series have gone up. But parents, schools and psychiatrists struggle to accept how bullying, relationships, social acceptability and sexual violence eat away at the self-confidence of adolescents and teenagers.
Mirror to life
“If you take out a couple of instances of bullying and violence, all the episodes are from an average teenager’s everyday life,” said Dr Samir Parikh, director of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Healthcare. He watched the show after the Fortis school helpline starting getting calls from students identifying with Hannah’s unmanageable melancholia. “It’s very close to life. There are no villains except a couple of people and, very often, she gets hurt by people crossing the line in what they think is a prank,” says Dr Parikh.
The fear that this identification may fuel mood disorders and behavioural problems has led some schools such as The Shri Ram School (TSRS) in Gurugram to send out notes to parents warning them about “inappropriate sites and shows on television channels, such as 13 Reasons Why, which… has adult content”.
Deepali Jaggi binge-watched the show with her 16-year-old daughter, Saisha. “I felt a big surge of discomfort watching Hannah’s suicide scene, when she steps into the bathtub. I instinctively reached out and covered Saisha’s eyes,” she says.
Suicide is the biggest cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds in India, followed by road traffic accidents, shows data from Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 which tracked death from 306 diseases, injuries and risk factors across 188 countries. Globally, road injury is the biggest killer in this age group, which makes up 1.8 billion of the world’s 7.1 billion population.
How do you feel?
The show worked for Raghav Gopaldas, 16, because it got him and his friends talking about how things they do or don’t do may affect another person’s lives without their realising it. “It makes you wonder that when you perhaps crack a joke, is the other person taking it as a joke or is it affecting them at a deeper level? It also makes you more sensitive to another person’s emotional needs,” he says. “Hannah approached people but they did not get it. She needed support but did not know how to ask for it.”
He’s critical that show also romaticises suicide. “Hannah’s suicide is about revenge, she wanted to get back at people who she thinks let her down. Her behaviour is no different from those she’s accusing, it’s ridiculous to justify it,” says Gopaldas.
Even parents of many adolescents have done a fair amount of introspection after watching some of the show. “I was struck by Hannah’s inability to express herself. From the beginning, it was almost as if she had chosen to be miserable,” said Deepali Jaggi. “I was also surprised how her parents didn’t pick up signs like Clay’s parents, who are on high alert about his behaviour patterns.”
Parents, like school counsellors, are also concerned that children combating emotional demons may become one with Hannah’s dark depression. “Both my girls are strong and very vocal against the show, but you can’t know how a child in a bad place will respond to it,” says Sadhika’s mum Punita Menon, a dentist. “Every child is different. Once these discussions of sadism, rape and suicide are out there, you can’t say how they will be interpreted,” she says.
Menon is spot on. The series is about unexpected consequences of action. For Ketaki Kannan, 18, the show was a lesson to learn. “I love the lines, ‘No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.’ Most people hurt Hannah unintentionally, without realising that they are adding another brick in the wall,” says Kannan, who graduated from Delhi Public School this year.
You can’t stop them
Warning emails from school nudge oblivious parents to pay a little more attention to their children’s lives. “Some parents are not very informed and don’t realise how deeply popular culture can influence impressionable minds. Instead of calling it a bad show, parents and schools should help students make sense of the show,” says Dr Chibber, who coordinates with counsellors across 300 schools in Delhi and the NCR.
Banning children from watching is a bad idea. “Telling adolescents and teens to not do something guarantees they will. Instead of banning it, parents and schools should use the series as a tool to address misplaced sentiments and seize it as an opportunity to discuss what teens are going through and how they would have handled the situation differently,” says Dr Parikh.
Some adolescents and teenagers are mimicking behavior from the show and internalising adverse social situations, say concerned counsellors, but it’s partly because the show has put the spotlight on teen concerns and now they feel they will be heard. “It’s made young people re-examine interpersonal challenges and peer group behaviour. It’s also forced adults to acknowledge that they cannot dismiss teenage trauma because if they do, they have abandoned the child to his or her demons,” says Dr Chibber.
Saisha initially resisted watching the series with her mum, but is happy now that she did. “I wish other parents would watch it too because it would help them know when their kids are not all right,” she says. “I talk to my mum all the time but when she saw the show, even she asked, ‘Do all these things happen’?”.
Teenagers and counsellors are unanimous in saying, “They do”.