By Lina Hawi
Picture this. You're 17. You return home from school one day to discover a mysterious package awaiting your arrival. Tentatively, you open the package to reveal a map of your town and seven double-sided cassette tapes. Cassette tapes left behind by a dead friend explaining why she committed suicide. You are one of the reasons.
This is the premise behind Netflix's hugely popular series 13 Reasons Why. Adapted from Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same name, the series depicts the life of Hannah Baker in the months preceding her suicide, and the repercussions that follow.
You’ve probably already heard about 13 Reasons Why. Since the show’s launch in March, it has amassed over eleven million mentions on Twitter, making it the most tweeted about show of 2017 so far. Discussion and controversy has seeped into news pieces, Facebook timelines and other social media feeds across the globe.
The argument seems to orbit two main sets of opinions.
The first camp argues the following:
The creative industries have no place depicting or commenting on issues of mental health.
Depictions of suicide and depression glorify and romanticise these issues.
By depicting depression and suicide like this, we encourage their existence.
13 Reasons Why is not immune to these attacks. Indeed, some mental health experts have labelled the show as ‘the most dangerous program on TV’ (The Daily Telegraph), suggesting that Hannah's story may be harmful to those already ‘on the edge’ (NBC News).
Meanwhile, the second camp of opinion argues the following:
The creative industries have a duty and an obligation to discuss mental health issues.
Depicting these issues can assist sufferers by showing them that they are never alone and that treatment is always an option.
Pretending that depression does not exist is detrimental to society, and audiences must confront these topics.
‘It's embarrassing that as a culture we're still stigmatising mental illness, failing to take it seriously, failing to provide proper help, and dismissing those who ask for it,’ writes Ellen Scott in her piece for Metro UK.
And mental illness must be taken seriously. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around three million Australians were living with depression or anxiety as far back as 2007. In their 2015 report, suicide was found to be ‘the leading cause of death for all people 15-44 in Australia’, with an average of eight people committing suicide every day.
The intense fascination with 13 Reasons Why reflects more broadly on the rise of audience interest in stories surrounding depression and suicide, particularly over the past few years. With statistics like these, perhaps it’s no surprise. There’s a good chance that most people have been affected by mental health issues; if not in themselves, through someone they know.
Depictions of suicide and depression in media aren’t new—think Girl, Interrupted (1999) or Prozac Nation (2004), or even more recently, It's Kind of A Funny Story (2010) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). But what is new is the willingness to engage in discussion about it. We can’t dismiss it simply as the latest clickbait scandal, either. Interest in stories of mental health hasn’t been confined just to film or television. It hasn't even been confined to fiction.
Also released in March this year was a seven ‘chapter’ podcast titled S-Town, from the creators of long-running program This American Life. Previously the team had produced Serial, a mix between investigative journalism and non-fiction storytelling that follows criminal justice cases and the people left behind. S-Town begins as more of the same, exploring an alleged murder in the small town of Woodstock, Alabama.
But then there’s a shift. Suddenly, listeners are being directed away from the murder story and toward the local resident who reported the case: John B. McLemore. McLemore, a lifelong sufferer of depression, takes his life midway through the podcast. For the remaining five chapters, journalist Brian Reed delves into McLemore's beliefs, his suffering, and his feelings of isolation.
And audiences cannot stop listening. S-Town, just over a month old, has set a record for podcast downloads. In the first four days of its release, it was downloaded ten million times (a figure that took Serial seven weeks to reach).
And so here we are. It's 2017 and audiences are awake. They want to talk about 13 Reasons Why. They want to talk about S-Town. In fact, they want to talk about depression and suicide stories no matter what form they appear in.
The truth of the arguments about depicting mental health issues probably falls somewhere between the cracks. For a lot of people, these issues hit close to home, and it’s undoubtedly an intense and difficult discussion to have. We have to be sure to treat depression and the people living with it with respect. We need to talk about the heartbreak and confusion depression causes, not sensationalise it.
But even if you disagree with the way that 13 Reasons Why portrays suicide and depression, the show has kickstarted the conversations we need to be having, and the ones we are ready to have.
People are ready to talk about these stories. So maybe we, the creative industries, should make producing them our priority.