Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why has received plenty of praise for its treatment of tough teenage issues, from sexting and bullying to teen suicide. But not everyone is quite as convinced.
One mental health charity in Australia, Mindspace, said that the drama “presents the viewer with very confronting and graphic messaging and imagery inclusive of suicide method and means,” while Stranger Things actress Shannon Purser tweeted that she “would advise against watching 13 Reasons Why if you currently struggle with suicidal thoughts or self harm/have undergone sexual assault.”
Now, 13 Reasons Why writer Nic Sheff has written a letter to Vanity Fair defending the graphic scenes in the drama.
“The show ended up being even more impactful than I could’ve imagined,” Sheff wrote. “Recently, however, I’ve been reading quite a few posts by suicide-prevention advocates and other individuals expressing concern, or even outrage, at the show’s decision to depict its protagonist’s suicide on-screen. In other words, they thought it would be better to leave her character’s death to the imagination.
“This response was actually quite surprising to me,” he continued. “From the very beginning, I agreed that we should depict the suicide with as much detail and accuracy as possible. I even argued for it – relating the story of my own suicide attempt to the other writers.”
Relaying his own experience of trying to take his own life, Sheff – a recovering alcoholic – continued, “It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all. In AA, they call it playing the tape: encouraging alcoholics to really think through in detail the exact sequence of events that will occur after relapse. It’s the same thing with suicide.
“I stand behind what we did 100 per cent. I know it was right, because my own life was saved when the truth of suicide was finally held up for me to see in all its horror—and reality.”
You can read his full open letter here.
A UK government report published in March found that the detailed portrayal of suicide methods on TV dramas could be in danger of encouraging copycats.
The House of Commons health select committee raised concerns that “unnecessary detail” in the dramatisation of suicides could “influence imitative behaviour”.
13 Reasons Why creator Brian Yorkey said before the series had been released that avoiding in any way glamourising suicide was “the most important question we faced.”
“In telling a 13-episode television series about a young woman who commits suicide, are you in some way glamourising or championing what she did?” he said.
“We could bring hopefully all viewers, but especially teen viewers and young adult viewers, into Hannah’s story and help them to understand how there were ways that she could have survived what she was going through. There were ways that the people in her life could have behaved differently that might have drastically changed the outcome.
“And ultimately, as you’ll see at the end of the series, we tried to be very clear-eyed and brutally honest about the pain of suicide. The pain of someone who attempts suicide, and certainly, when someone dies by suicide, the tremendous pain of the people that they leave behind.”
A spokesperson for the suicide helpline charity, the Samaritans, told RadioTimes.com that viewers do get in touch when they have been affected by a television plotline, which is why promoting sources of support is so important.
In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and you can find out more about how to contact them here. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.