MP! Opinion: “13 Reasons Why handled suicide badly and that’s why it gave me a panic attack”

“I slammed my laptop shut while struggling to breathe.”

Trigger warning: Please be aware that the following article contains written material that may be triggering to people who have or are sensitive to topics such as depression, suicide, anxiety and panic attacks.

By now you guys have probably watched Netflix’s ’13 Reasons Why’? It’s a controversial show and MP! reader Annika Suomi recently wrote a guest post for us about how triggering she found it.

Penned during her internship with YA Shot, in the piece Annika discusses why we need more survival stories in YA and how the startling ending of ’13 Reasons Why’ gave her a panic attack.

Here’s her article…

’13 Reasons Why’ and mental health in YA: offering hope or here for the shock factor?by Annika Suomi

When the Netflix adaptation of ’13 Reasons Why’ came out, I was warned to stay away from it. I watched it anyway, because I can’t help but gravitate to stories about mental illness.

Books, movies, and TV shows portraying teenage characters struggling with their mental health can raise awareness and open up discussions online, in homes, and in schools. Seeing mental illnesses represented on screen or in the pages of a book is a big step for those of us who struggle with our own mental health.

Jay Asher’s ’13 Reasons Why’ and ‘All The Bright Places’ by Jennifer Niven are two popular stories that bring attention to school environments, bullying, and mental illness in general. But YA stories have a responsibility to young readers and watchers beyond just reflecting experiences of struggling with mental health issues.

When I got to the last episode of ’13 Reasons Why’, I had a panic attack. I slammed my laptop shut while struggling to breathe. It turns out that in some YA stories we’re not the heroes after all. Instead, the characters most like us die at the end.

’13 Reasons Why’ hints that we should be nicer to each other, more considerate: we never know what’s really going on in other people’s minds and lives. It’s a good message. However, the graphic way suicide is handled in it is not a positive message and might harm people who are vulnerable. Even knowing that a suicide is coming up – having prepared myself for it for the entire book or film – it still hits me. When you see a character that could easily be you committing suicide because they see no other way, because there’s no one to help them, it’s hard to remember the progress you’ve made. You can’t help but focus on what could have been if things had been a tiny bit different for you.

The significance of this might not be obvious to a healthy person, who can brush off unpleasant things and let them go. But those of us who struggle with mental illness can be affected for days or weeks by seeing a graphic suicide on screen. These are our stories. These are our lives. And because mental health conditions are still so stigmatised, it is crucial to make sure these stories are depicted in ways that don’t harm the very consumers who feel most strongly about them.

What do we owe teenagers growing up while suffering mental illness? How do they deserve to see themselves reflected in fiction?

There are books that focus on mental illness without killing off the main character. Emery Lord, David Levithan, Holly Bourne, and Stephen Chbosky have all written characters who struggle with mental illness and feel like they’ll never be okay. In their stories, however, things start to get better. People heal and get back to their lives. That is the message I wish more YA authors would include when tackling mental health: a story like that can mean the world.

Children and teenagers who struggle with mental illness need to see themselves in literature and on TV not as people who suffer and die young, but as people who are resilient and strong even though they don’t feel like it. We need stories with characters who hurt and suffer and sometimes can’t get out of bed in the morning: characters who feel broken but are still alive and fighting. The realities of our lives are important, and deserve their place alongside stories of suicide, hopelessness, and tragedy.

Mental illness doesn’t define us. It’s a part of our lives but not the sum of our experience. Characters who live with mental illness can be inspirational role models. Reading about them can help us cope, give us strength in difficult moments, and keep us afloat when our illnesses threatens to overcome us.

We need hope. We need characters who survive. People who fight so, so hard, and see no way out but somehow still flourish. We need people who get help, people who take their meds. We need stories where mental illness isn’t the focus, just a part of a character’s life. We need to treat mental illness as part of life.

More about the author…

Annika researched, conceptualised, wrote and redrafted this article as part of her first year internship with YA Shot, with detailed advice, input and two stages of in-depth edits from her second-year peer-mentor, Matthias Asiedu-Yeboa.

Want do you think of Annika’s piece? Do you agree? Was the suicide in ’13 Reasons Why’ too shocking? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. 

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Written by Emma Matthews

Emma is a freelance journalist at MP.

When she’s not writing articles for Maximum Pop!, you’ll find her attending gigs, geeking out over the latest beauty products and reading feminist literature. Hermione is her favourite Harry Potter character - obviously.

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