23-year-old Franco Alonso Lazo Medrano of Peru died by suicide this week after jumping from the fourth floor of his apartment building, leaving behind two letters for his loved ones. One letter provided a list of people for whom he had left audio recordings on his computer explaining how they had led him to end his life.
While the way he killed himself doesn’t reflect the graphic suicide depicted in the enormously popular “13 Reasons Why” and he didn’t reference the Netflix original in his letters, Medrano making recordings directly mirrors the major plotline of the drama: teen Hannah Baker kills herself and leaves behind tapes that detail how each of the 13 people selected to receive them prompted her to do so.
“13 Reasons Why” has received criticism from mental health advocates, therapists and other professionals, teachers and school boards, and those struggling with suicidal thoughts of their own for its depiction of this growing problem. SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), a nonprofit group that aims to prevent suicide, released a list of detailed tips on how to discuss the show because it does little to accurately represent the very real issue. The Executive Director of the organization, Dan Reidenberg, agrees with many other vocal critics that the show’s romanticization of suicide may lead to a contagion of teens following suit. As he said,
“There is a great concern that I have … that young people are going to overidentify with Hannah in the series and we actually may see more suicides as a result of this television series … I’ve heard from others that are really concerned because it’s so sensational and so graphic that they’re worried about the copycat effect of suicide.”
Some, including co-producer Selena Gomez, claim that it’s meant to help mentally ill viewers recognize that they aren’t alone and to raise awareness. Gomez has been vocal about her own depression and anxiety and should know better than to make such a statement: while she called it “honest,” some high schoolers called it a factor that led them to self-harm.
It did help some viewers in various ways, but other teens have simply used the show as entertainment and even meme material. Now, a young person has likely used it as part of his own suicide.
What we watch influences our society. The representation of mental illness in our media matters, but fairness and accuracy are important parts of that inclusion. “13 Reasons Why” lacks both.
If representation were the real goal of the show rather than high ratings, producers would have listened to experts who recommended against showing a graphic suicide on-screen. They would have avoided glorifying suicide and created a show that includes it realistically and responsibly. They wouldn’t suggest that people will recognize your value only after you kill yourself. They wouldn’t have included authority figures who ignore Hannah’s warning signs. They certainly wouldn’t have portrayed suicide as anyone’s “fault.”
Fans of the show want to claim it as a champion for mental illness awareness. That’s another problem: Hannah doesn’t have a mental illness, and if she does, it’s never mentioned or developed in the show. “13 Reasons Why” erases the role of mental illness in suicide although over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have an underlying disorder. How is that “honest?”
The medical director of the suicide-prevention group the JED Foundation, Dr. Victor Schwartz, told NBC that the show’s premise of blaming others for Hannah’s death is a “failure” because it misrepresents suicide and those who consider it. It suggests that ending your life is an act of revenge, when in reality, it is a side effect of a deeper, likely unaddressed, cause such as depression. “13 Reasons Why” enforces the idea that hurting or killing yourself is a selfish and ill-intentioned act, which actually furthers the dangerous and marginalizing social stigma against the mentally ill or suicidal.
Those involved in the show don’t mean to promote suicide and may genuinely want to prompt much-needed honest conversations about mental health. Unfortunately, they seem to be completely misguided in how to go about it — probably because they ignored the professionals who told them what not to do. Netflix added trigger warnings after the show’s release, but that is nowhere near as effective as the experts’ recommendations.
It’s not that we shouldn’t talk about suicide. It’s that the conversations this irresponsibly-made show sparks don’t promote true understanding of what has escalated to become the tenth leading cause of death in America and second among people ages 10-34.
“13 Reasons Why” is dangerous, and this tragedy in Peru proves that we were right all along.
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please get help. Call 9-1-1 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, use the Online Suicide Prevention Chat at crisischat.org/chat, or visit the Online Crisis Network at imalive.org.
Here is a list of other resources for non-emergencies:
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health)