by Beth Shulman, MS, LPC, NCC
We all know that images are powerful. That’s why the creators of “13 Reasons Why” originally included a graphic suicide scene in the first season of the show. Their hope was that the explicit details of a teen’s suicide would illustrate the horror of the act, and thus dissuade other young people from attempting suicide themselves. A couple of seasons into the series, another perspective emerged from mental health professionals: the suicide scene could lead to copycat suicides among teenagers. Recently, those concerns led the show’s creator and Netflix to delete the scene completely. 
I believe that was the correct decision. Copycat behaviors occur in our society, most disturbingly in murders and suicides, though positive instances exist as well. Humans learn by example. It’s not a far stretch to imagine someone who is suffering from an unstable mood, a personality disorder, and/or suicidal ideation to be inspired, rather than repulsed, by a suicide scene. Reason, logic, and reality testing are not foremost in disordered personalities and emotionally troubled individuals.
There’s more to this story, though—more to consider about the portrayal of both the suicide and the problems that lead up to it in “13 Reasons Why.” The girl who killed herself did it in order to take revenge on people who treated her badly. The playing out of this revenge is the consistent thread of the series. That’s an enormous, dangerous problem. The theme communicates that the way to handle embarrassing situations, disappointments, and mean people is to take revenge against them. The fact that this character’s revenge takes the form of destroying herself (and leaving behind audio tapes letting people know how they wronged her) is the worst possible message. This is not what anyone of any age should be taught.
Kids can start experiencing bullying, hurt feelings, social drama, and deep disappointment early on in elementary school. They may experience worse pain in their families at even younger ages. Yes, let’s create shows that mirror and validate their experiences and let them know they’re not alone—which was the goal of the show’s creators. But let’s show them healthy, productive ways of managing their problems. Let’s develop young characters that learn about asking for help and communicating their pain. Let’s have characters that break down but survive. Let’s show that nothing is insurmountable, that no situation is worth ending your life over. That’s where “13 Reasons Why” really fails.
Beth Shulman, MS, LPC, NCC currently sees adults ages 18 and older in her Durham, NC office on Broad Street. She has particular interest and expertise in LGBTQ affirmative therapy, women’s health, depression, communication skills, and relationship dynamics. She believes the therapy process must be client-driven and bases her work in cognitive-behavioral, solution-focused, systems, and psychodynamic theories. More info at mindpathcare.com/staff/beth-shulman-ms-lpc-ncc/.