Stop Saying 13 Reasons Why is About Mental Illness
There’s an important difference between Mental Illness and PTSD.
[spoiler warning for Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and trigger warning for sexual assault, rape]
Yesterday morning, the crystalline blue-purple hues of Clay and Hannah’s winter formal dance were the first sensation in my mind’s eye upon waking. The melancholy melody of that slow song tripped its way through my brain, and I was sure I’d been dreaming of it. My blood felt slow with sadness. In another time, with different memories attached to it, I would’ve liked that song. Now, I don’t think I could listen without my heart crumbling.
It’s all I can think about. Since finishing it last Friday night, it’s been the first thing on my mind every morning.
If it’s not obvious: I binge-watched Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why (THRW) last week and the experience is still seared in my heart. It’s all I can think about. Since finishing it last Friday night, it’s been the first thing on my mind every morning.
I was properly prepared and equipped to experience THRW. I read the book in my early twenties and loved it. It helped tremendously that I’m in a good place in terms of my own mental health.
Anyone familiar with my writing knows that I’m a dear friend to mental illness and health, and the varying ways those things manifest. I was diagnosed with an eating disorder, depression, and anxiety at age twenty, though I’d been struggling with them for my entire life. At twenty-four, I was additionally diagnosed with OCD and dyslexia, along with “possible” bipolar disorder (I was never given clarification).
The point is that when viewing THRW, my perspective was distinctly that of a girl with mental illnesses…
At twenty-six I’ve been in “recovery” for six years; I’ve spent intensive amounts of time and energy on self-exploration, therapy, spirituality; etc. I’ve found an amazing quality of life, even with ups and downs. Managing mental illness is an integral part of that, and its something I’m very public about (when you have a novel published about a girl with anorexia, I suppose there’s a certain pressure to be).
Something I’m not so public about— a grave intersecting variant of my mental health—is my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is the result of bullying in my elementary years, two separate sexual assaults in my teens, and one in my twenties.
(PTSD is a unique mental disorder in that it’s not affected by genes or brain chemistry itself, but by external forces: one or many traumatic events, which actually damage your brain.)
The details of these are unimportant, here. The point is that when viewing THRW, my perspective was distinctly that of a girl with mental illnesses, who’d once upon a time planned her own death, and who has trauma related to her body and sexuality, which warp her memory and perception daily.
The last four to five episodes are nauseating to watch—some images will haunt me for years.
Watching THRW was an extremely healing, cathartic experience. This reaction was unexpected. There wasn’t much in the series to offer in ways of hope. The last four to five episodes are nauseating to watch—some images will haunt me for years. What was healing for me was the fact that I was hearing, seeing, feeling Hannah’s story at all.
In our modern society, the teenage girl is never validated. She’s sexualized, objectified, exploited, abused—but never validated. The emotion, opinion, or life of the teenage girl isn’t typically taken seriously. This is an extremely scary thing to live, especially when things get bad. And now here’s this show, chronicling with unflinching grittiness and honesty, the reality of what our lives are like and just how bad it gets when things get bad.
Hannah’s suicide has nothing to do with mental illness and everything to do with bullying, sexual assault, and rape culture.
Upon finishing THRW, I jumped onto social media and scrambled for reviews and articles. Though it’s encouraging to see its rank on Rotten Tomatoes, the greater reception to 13 Reasons Why is that its themes orbit around mental illness—which is more than a little alarming. Hannah’s suicide has nothing to do with mental illness and everything to do with bullying, sexual assault, and rape culture.
I’m not a psychologist or therapist. But I have been on the other side of a therapist’s gaze for the past six and a half years, and I live with PTSD and mental illness every day. So let’s make one thing quite plain: suicidal ideation isn’t a mental illness but rather a symptom of mental illness, such as depression or other mood disorders.
Before attending Clay’s school, Hannah’s life was completely untouched by mental illness. She had a better-than-most relationship with her parents, started the school year with good grades (as revealed by Mr. Porter), enjoyed her job at the movie theatre, and was at least confident enough to make friends out of Clay, Jessica, and Alex – and even remain more-or-less open to them as things became rocky.
If mental illness were a significant theme, Hannah’s backstory would’ve included struggling with symptoms of such—which tend to afflict a person despite their external circumstances (that’s sort of what mental illness is all about).
Not once is mental illness mentioned by Hannah in the tapes. She doesn’t describe struggling with listless, dissociative thoughts; being disinterested in activities; an eroding sense of self and familial ties (common symptoms of depression). Even as her situation grows steadily worse, Hannah shows investment in her future: she voices her desire to go to NYU and attends the school’s career fair. She nurtures her love for poetry, despite insecurities and self-doubt. Hannah still has hope, which she wouldn’t have if she were someone fighting a veil of depressive smog.
What are the reasons Hannah details in her tapes?
Justin is Hannah’s first kiss, but he takes a deplorable snapshot up Hannah’s skirt, shows his friends and lets them believe they fucked. Bryce sends the pic to everyone in school. Hannah gets the reputation of a slut.
Alex puts Hannah’s name on the “Hot or Not” list, which earns her sexual harassment from the boys at school – the worst of which is Bryce, who gropes her at a convenience store counter.
Jessica reacts to the list by getting mad at Hannah instead of Alex (as he intended) and slaps Hannah.
Tyler stalks Hannah and takes pictures of her in her bedroom, then takes pictures of her and Courtney kissing when Hannah attempts to enlist Courtney’s help.
Courtney throws Hannah under the bus for fear of being outed. Hannah gets more shit for being “easy”.
Marcus attempts to take advantage of Hannah in a diner but she physically fights him off.
Zach has too much male entitlement to handle rejection and steals Hannah’s “notes of encouragement”.
Ryan publishes Hannah’s poem without her consent; students suspect her and it feeds into her reputation.
Justin is complicit in Jessica’s rape.
Bryce rapes Jessica.
Sherry and Hannah cause a car accident and their classmate’s death.
Bryce rapes Hannah.
Mr. Porter victim-shames Hannah when she goes to him for help.
Of the thirteen reasons Hannah decides to kill herself, ten are definable sexual harassment or assault, or related to a sexual assault.
The most traumatic of the thirteen reasons are all sexual assaults, not checkpoints on a person’s journey through mental illness.
Six reasons are considered bullying. But here’s the thing; the sexist attacks and bullying intersect. All of Hannah’s bullying has to do with her reputation in relationship to her sexuality. This is a part of the story’s many important themes; that boys can and commonly use sexism to bully girls, and that others (girls, teachers, parents) can be gravely complicit.
Ryan’s betrayal with the poem is technically an ethics issue, but the repercussions of that poem are sexual in nature. Spurned by her own objectification, Hannah’s bitter poem starts with imagery of lacy underwear, though the language declines into suicidal ideation. The greater populace of her school dismisses the darker tones and focuses instead on the seductive first lines, suspecting who wrote it. Of course, this exacerbates Hannah’s sense of violation, along with her horrible reputation.
The most traumatic of the thirteen reasons are all sexual assaults, not checkpoints on a person’s journey through mental illness. From a TV writing point of view, if one were to construct a plot around mental illness, its pillar beats would include moments tying into that theme; visiting a psychiatrist, avoiding or consenting to treatment and/or medications, learning or actually talking about any said illness, declining or descending into behaviours —the list goes on.
There were no moments of Hannah succumbing to depressed thoughts or adopting bad coping mechanisms. The pillar beats in the plot are Hannah being groped in a convenience store, two separate parties where horrible assaults take place, and people being told about those assaults. When Hannah opens up to Mr. Porter, she doesn’t admit to depression or any other mental ailment. She talks about how she was raped.
THRW isn’t about mental illness because there’s no real dialogue about mental illness between any of the characters.
Mr. Porter is the last person given a very clear opportunity to save Hannah, and he fails miserably. Not because he’s ill-equipped to handle mental illness, but because he blames Hannah for the assaults she’s experienced before advising her to get over it. This is an almost textbook example of victim blaming and showcases another ugly facet of rape culture. And it’s the last nail in Hannah’s coffin.
THRW isn’t about mental illness because there’s no real dialogue about mental illness between any of the characters. However the words “rape” and “rapist” are said more often (and with more honesty) than in any show I’ve seen. If it were about mental illness, the antagonist would be a mental illness or at the very least Hannah’s suicidal thoughts. However the antagonist(s) in THRW are Bryce (a rapist) and a group of varying degrees of shitty people, because, you guessed it, this show is about bullying and rape culture.
If THRW was about mental illness, that’s what would’ve been keeping Hannah from connecting with Clay at Jessica’s party. She would’ve pushed him away for fear of being too sad or fucked up to love; or because she knew she could be dying soon.
The thing about suicidal depression is that you can’t merely talk a person out of it.
Instead, Hannah pushes Clay away because she’s come to associate physical intimacy with domination and degradation thanks to Justin and Bryce and Marcus and Zach; her PTSD and its resulting hyper-vigilance make her shut Clay out, as showcased in the snapshot-montage of her tape. Hannah admits she could’ve been talked out of her despair, if only Clay would’ve kept talking. The thing about suicidal depression is that you can’t merely talk a person out of it.
Anxiety or panic attacks resulting from PTSD? Those, I’ve been talked down from a few times.
When Clay plays that night out in his head; how he hoped it would be, what he says to Hannah is I will never hurt you. And dream-world-Hannah (or whatever) admits it’s what she needed to hear. Notice: Clay didn’t say I’ll love you despite the ups and downs of your mind, which is something along the lines of what a depressed or suicidal girl could need to hear. Instead Clay promises that he genuinely cares about Hannah and that she’s safe with him. Hannah needs to hear that, because she’s scarred from her experiences with bullying, sexual harassment, and assault. Those are important distinctions.
Each character shows us rape culture from a different point of view.
Aside from the school’s anti-suicide campaign (which Clay despises because he knows it’s bullshit), mental illness isn’t a tangible theme. Alternatively, commentary on everyday sexism, toxic masculinity, and rape culture are in each episode: from teachers exploring graffiti in the washrooms, to Bryce saying what happened to Hannah “is no different than what happens to every girl at every high school” and Justin being mollified, to Hannah’s own father speculating that she should’ve taken the Hot-or-Not list as a compliment. And those are only a chosen few.
Each character shows us rape culture from a different point of view. Hannah’s the girl trying to remain unscathed, Bryce a shark in the water, Jessica’s the victim society wishes they could blame, Justin is the worst example of a dudebro and rape apologist, Mr. Porter is the voice of rape culture itself, Jessica’s father represents the (pretty useless) I’ll-shoot-him-if-he-hurts-you mentality; Clay’s the exception to the rule we all hope still exists. I’m sure there’s more.
It’s very important we follow this trail to its source: Hannah’s depression and suicide were the result of trauma and violation.
There are few articles to be found about what this series says about the social climate in our high schools; how far toxic masculinity has truly gone in our youth and how much of our modern culture (frat boys, worshipped athletes) enables it.
This was THWR’s very clear message, or so I felt. But when I search Google for articles or blog posts about the series, the majority of the language points to mental illness over bullying, sexual assault, or rape culture. Wikipedia’s page describes the series as having brought light to teen suicide, but nothing else; nothing about the relevance of Bryce’s character, given the epidemic of sexual assault at universities across the continent. There are few articles to be found about what this series says about the social climate in our high schools; how far toxic masculinity has truly gone in our youth and how much of our modern culture (frat boys, worshipped athletes) enables it.
And I’m absolutely flummoxed. Yes, this series ignited a fire within me but it has nothing to do with mental health or even suicide prevention, which I am plenty passionate about.
The feeling THRW left me with most definitely wasn’t, “Awe, I wish Hannah Baker never killed herself,” it was, “HOLY FUCK I WISH BRYCE WASN’T A RAPIST (and someone had befriended that poor girl).” The moral we were left with wasn’t “don’t commit suicide” it was “rapists are fucking evil and deserve punishment, and we need to protect each other”.
I’m completely and utterly lost how anyone could come away with anything different.
If Hannah survived her ordeal, 13 Reasons Why would be a story about rape.
By making “don’t commit suicide” the larger lesson of THRW, it puts the blame on Hannah. It suggests that the greatest tragedy of the story was that she chose suicide, when the actual tragedy was that a couple of people had violated her horribly enough (or helped) to make her want to die. And that’s on them.
If Hannah survived her ordeal, 13 Reasons Why would be a story about rape. Take away the suicide and you can’t argue mental illness at all; told in real-time, Hannah’s experience is one of sexual harassment, alienation, and then rape. And to dismiss all that, and masquerade the entire story under the flag of mental illness, is dishonest. It’s a way for the larger public to oversimplify mental illness and conveniently dismiss rape culture, and it certainly doesn’t do Hannah or her story justice.*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.