Thirteen Reasons Why: A Messy Reflection

Trigger Warning: Discussion of suicide, depression, self harm, etc.

Notes:

  1. I am not a mental health professional. This is just the musings of someone with depression and anxiety.
  2. It has recently come to my attention that Jay Asher has in the past searched his name on Twitter and harassed teenagers who didn’t like his book. That is abusive and unacceptable behavior and I do not support him and will not read any of his other books. I read Thirteen Reasons Why before I knew any of this (or perhaps before it even happened.) I would not have read the book had I known this.
  3. I do not recommend anyone read this book knowing number 2 and for other reasons I will discuss later.
  4. There will be spoilers.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a book I read a number of years ago. I was still struggling with depression, but I was at one of my more steady periods. Suicidal thoughts weren’t plaguing me and I felt a little more grounded. At that time, I loved the book. I related to Hannah. Her experience was vastly different than mine, but I found pieces of my own mental illness and I felt less alone.

At this time I also wasn’t very involved with the YA community. The way I found books was very different than how I do now. There were definitely better books out there on the topic of depression, but this is just the one I found.

In light of the Netflix series, I’ve reflected more on the book and read other people’s criticisms and can see the faults I didn’t recognize before. I’ve also done a lot more over the years to learn about my own mental illness and how it impacts others differently. I can see where the book can be damaging for others with depression. I can see where it can lead people without the experience of mental illness to believe things that aren’t true. I understand all of this, but I can’t completely let go of where the book helped me.

That’s the thing about representation of mental illness. Everyone’s experiences are so unique. Triggers are so personal. The line between helpful and harmful is at a different place for everyone. It makes it really difficult to determine where a book falls.

Here are some points I took from the book when I first read it:

  1. Not everyone’s depression looks the same, but you’re also not alone.
  2. There aren’t reasons for suicide. Hannah was already depressed. There were just things that didn’t help. Maybe the reasons I’m grasping at for my own depression aren’t actual reasons.
  3. People should be kinder to each other.
  4. Things that people without mental illness can endure can sometimes have a greater effect on people with depression. My reactions to events are different than other people’s.

Just to name a few. And with a lot of these, other people saw the OPPOSITE. That the book was saying people kill themselves for specific reasons. That it glorified suicide. And I completely see that perspective now. It just wasn’t how I saw it when I first read the book. Maybe if I had read it a different time, when my depression was at its worse, the effect would have been different.

Now I believe the book is likely to be more harmful than helpful for most people. (The television show had made up for some of the faults, and then went terribly, terribly wrong by showing the suicide. A suicide they made bloody when it wasn’t in the book. It was a mistake big enough to pretty much cancel out all the good. I enjoyed the series until then, but maybe it isn’t a coincidence I had a mental breakdown the day after marathoning the episodes.) It’s not something I’d recommend. I wouldn’t put it in the hands of a teen with depression. But what about the ones who have read it already and it helped them? What about those who could relate? I also don’t want to disparage them or make them think something is wrong with them for liking it. After all, I had found worth in it at one point.

I don’t know what the answer is here. If there even is one. Mental illness is messy and so is the representation of mental illness. Even books that take the absolute most care are going to be damaging to someone. I could write the story of my own struggle with 100% truthfulness and it could still be harmful to someone else.

That doesn’t mean the damaging aspects of Thirteen Reasons Why, as the book or Netflix series, are off the hook. It’s a problem to be discussed. I think the overall positive impact is narrow. But when it comes to mental illness as a topic as a whole, there’s a lot to be done. More careful representation needs to be out there. And when we fight to keep out things with harmful descriptions from future readers, we can’t forget the ones that have already read it. There are ones who need help because of the harm. And there are ones who found comfort, who shouldn’t be made to feel stupid.

And perhaps a little more mental health education worldwide would stop some of the jokes coming off the Netflix series that make light of suicide. Maybe if more people understood what mental illness entails, those suffering would have the help they need instead of just going to books and shows to feel less alone. 

Here are some other posts I read discussing the book/show:

 

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