Suicide beyond reasons

13 Reasons Why is an American drama-mystery series adapted by Brian Yorkey in 2017. The web television series is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Jay Asher. The series is based on 13 cassette tapes recorded by a high school student Hannah Baker, documenting the reasons for her committing suicide. The story revolves around the characters Clay Jensen and other high school students who receive a copy of these tapes after she commits suicide. The series is meant to provoke viewers into considering Hannah’s perception of events and feeling which culminated in her committing suicide.

Despite being lauded for its nuanced handling of mental health issue, the show yet takes a reductionist approach in exploring the causes of suicide. Suicide is one among the leading causes of death in the U.S. and represents a serious public health problem. Furthermore, the WHO data on the mental health status of adolescents in South-East Asia shows that suicidal behaviour, namely suicidal ideations, plans and attempts, is a major and immediate cause for concern.  The series attempts to show the why’s of suicide but fails to sufficiently cover the variables of suicide such as an adolescent’s impulsivity, failed problem-solving, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and helplessness- all of which are essential to the understanding of the causes of suicide among young adults. Furthermore, there is a shift in the responsibility of suicide from Hannah to external causes - the people who were close to her. Looking at the series  through the lens of Beck’s cognitive theory , there are clear examples of how Hannah’s probable depression, and her subsequent skewed perceptions of events, is what led to her decision to commit suicide. The theory  postulates that people undergoing depression are likely to have cognitive biases, negative self-schemas, and also have a ‘negative triad’ of irrational beliefs about self, world, and future. A cognitive bias can be seen, for instance, when Hannah assumes her fault for what happened between Clay and her at Jessica Davis’ party in the Tape 6, Side A and stops interacting with Clay because she presumes that he must hate her as she admits in Tape 7, Side A. Furthermore, this incident adds to the negative schema that she has of herself- such as her feeling undeserving of Clay and that it was all her fault. Thus, a  cognitive triad is formed, consisting of feeling of unworthiness of self, unfairness of the world, and loneliness in future. The series is attempting to show how the actions of the people around Hannah, however unwitting, were what led to her suicide but this seems to absolve the individual who did commit suicide from any blame or responsibility. For instance, Hannah’s tape Tape 7, Side A regarding her therapy session  happened only once, there is a possibility that the rapport between the two was not formed. It is likely that the therapist during the therapy session did not foresee the possible consequences taken by his client Hannah later in the series.

Additionally, the series did not attempt to explain what kind of coping mechanisms were used by the main character. Coping mechanisms are the ‘survival skills’ or strategies used by an individual to deal with any stressor, life experiences or natural changes. They can be of two kinds i.e. negative coping mechanisms and positive coping mechanisms. In the present series the main character resorts to negative coping mechanism i.e. attempted suicide. Furthermore, the  series actively adds to increasing vulnerability for the young population. Considering some of the scenes such as rape, planning and the act of committing suicide were explicitly shown and could be disturbing for young viewers.  Talking about other loopholes, in the Tape 7, Side A it is unclear why Hannah recorded her therapy session. Taping the therapy session as the reason for suicide does not provide enough insight into her intentions. One probable reason for recording the session could be her attempt to externalize the factors of suicide away from her.

The series did take mental health as an issue of concern but was certainly inadequate in putting across the message of prevention, risk warnings, and coping strategies in the context of suicide. The suicide of Hannah Baker was glorified and left the people around her in guilt and helplessness which doesn’t seem to help them in long term to get past the incident. The show did not make an attempt to focus on the larger issue relating to adolescents mental health and risk behaviors.

Suicide is a serious health concern and there is an immense need to create awareness and preventive measures. Let's reach out to be heard or reach out to someone who needs help because it is much beyond reasons, it’s about prevention.

Anjali Kanojia