4 Reasons Why 13 Reasons Why Can Rewrite the Stigma

I Live The Stigma

The emails are coming in fast and furious, nearly quicker than I can respond. Thing is that it’s late and I’m falling asleep, so let’s finish this off. Just email me her number and I’ll give Sarah (name is changed) a call tomorrow to put things in motion. Then one last email comes in which puts everything to a halt.


The stigma strikes:

“I just spoke with Sarah. She heard really nice things about you and was interested (in going on a date). Her parents apparently heard that you take medication and they felt that this wouldn’t be a match for their daughter. So I guess that ends that. Sarah is a no go.”

So much for going to sleep.


Before I settle in for a night of pondering – knowing I won’t be hearing from this “set up person” again since I’ve now been categorized as inferior – I kindly let her know that I am concerned for Sarah given how misinformed and controlling her parents are. Please be sure to put an extra focus on setting her up because she will likely have a difficult time dating with her parents and their outdated preconceptions never too far behind.


That should slightly help to righten this human’s mindset. One down, 7.5 billion to go.



Stigma is Not Just on TV

The stigmatic view I experienced that night is perhaps prevalent nowhere more than our television screens. As has been proven too true, CNN (and the rest of the newsforce) charge right to the theory of mental illness when a newsworthy crime is committed. The despicable stigma as well makes its way to our television shows. To quote a lead detective from a recent episode of Law & Order: SVU, “We have two allegations of assault. Now (granted), a publicist who’s mentally unstable, she is easy to discredit.” If this stigmatic prejudice only existed on our TV screens and general society disregarded it, then it would be just fine. But people listen and people judge. Stigma is created.



13 Reasons Why: Anything but Destructive

There is one television show which is a beacon of light. Peculiarly, this show has received perhaps the harshest critiques ever from the mental health community, becoming a virtual punching bag for advocates. The series in question is Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. Criticism ranges from the show romanticizing suicide to spending its time placing blame for a suicide, not on an educational mental illness discussion.


While I get these reservations, I have found the show to be anything but destructive. It has the power to finally rewrite the mental health stigma. From the perspective of someone who lives the stigma, here are four reasons why:


1) At long last, a medium capable of reaching millions starts the conversation about mental health. Moreover, these millions are the younger generation, the activists of society. The reality is that these young people are not exactly lining the halls of their universities to listen to a lecture from the school’s counseling center or a mental health expert. In order to rewrite the stigma, there needs to be an audience listening. If the young generation is going to be reached, this is the way. 13 Reasons Why starts the conversation.


2) There is much more to the show than anybody named Hannah Baker, the character who decides to take her life. Mental health depictions can be found littered across 13 Reasons Why. One example being the journey of a girl who turns to alcohol in the wake of the trauma of being raped. Kind of sounds like a great educational bit on PTSD. The show’s main character, Clay Jensen, is himself seemingly struggling with mental illness symptoms, such as extreme hallucinations.To return to the focal point of the show, a young girl’s suicide, it seems to me like it is portrayed a lot more as an ugly, destructive event than a glorious one. That is after all what suicide is: ugly and hard to watch. If the stigma is going to be rewritten, the reality of living with a mental illness needs to be illustrated.


3) As someone who lives the stigma (as is depicted in the email referenced above) watching the show was a once unthinkable pleasure. There they were in the flesh, television stars that I could relate to on some level. So much of the lure of TV is being able to sometimes relate to the characters. While with obvious differences (starting with my gender), I got to see somebody who is going through some of the depressive symptoms I’ve encountered. If those with mental illness can for the first time feel understood, perhaps the stigma they feel can be rewritten.


4) So many descriptions of how mental illnesses came to be contain the word “bullying”. I have trouble seeing why it is a bad thing to see a brilliantly acted drama depict high school students ranging from the yearbook photographer to basketball stars confront the notion that maybe it is best to start considering other’s feelings. When I act, maybe I should consider that someone else could be affected. Society understanding the importance of being cognizant of other’s feelings is critical to rewriting the stigma.



Confronting My Awkward Position

It is admittedly strange to find myself on the other side of the argument than most of my fellow mental health advocates. Perhaps it can be explained by my having watched each of the thirteen episodes, while I suspect many critiques relied on clips, synopsis and other secondhand accounts. Indeed, after initially reading secondhand about the show and watching clips, I was arguing with the consensus negative viewpoint. However, viewing the series left the actual events of the show incompatible with many of the chief critiques. Perhaps my differing viewpoint can also be explained by my living a mental illness, living the stigma. While it feels nice to attend a lecture on the topic, it doesn’t compare to a television show capable of reaching millions.


Jay Asher, the author of the book which the series is based on, who himself nearly lost a close one to suicide, puts it best. “Over and over, readers describe 13 Reasons Why as the first time they felt understood,” Asher counters the critics. “Recognizing that people will understand is the first step toward asking for help.”


I plead with all of the show’s well-intentioned critics to take a fresh look at the matter. Try to see why someone with a mental illness may find their voice heard in 13 Reasons Why. Think of the countless years advocates have spent trying to start the mental health conversation which this show accomplished in 13 hours. There might just be more good than bad to be found.




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Etan Neiman

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