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Fatal attraction?

A tv show ignites controversy on the subject of teen suicide

Fatal attraction?

A Netflix show which revolves around the suicide of a teenage girl has divided opinion on the subject of how suicide should be depicted on film and whether this can have a detrimental effect on susceptible viewers. The plot of the show ‘13 Reasons Why’ involves audio tapes left behind by high school student Hannah Baker, who has committed suicide. The set of 7 cassettes are received by a number of her schoolmates and they identify thirteen reasons and thirteen people she considers responsible for her suicide.

The story is told in flashback from Hannah’s perspective and in present day by another student, Clay, who had a crush on Hannah. The show is compelling viewing as Hannah’s story is told from beyond the grave, causing deep disquiet to the various individuals she implicates. The story involves lots of high school cruelty: bullying, sexual allegation, peer pressure and the importance of hanging out with the ‘cool crowd’. It’s actually a pretty brutal landscape — full of not just mean girls but some very, very mean boys as well.

Now at least two schools in Britain have issued a warning to parents raising concern about the teen drama. According to The Sunday Times, The American School in London and St Olave’s Grammar School in Kent have both cautioned parents about the show. In a letter sent out by the American School, the school explained its concerns and expressed the fear that “the creation of an elaborate suicide note that has revenge-like quality to it may be appealing to students who are already looking for a way out”.

They advised parents to not let their offspring watch the series alone and to discuss the issues raised in the drama. And St Olave’s has said, “We are concerned that all ages may be watching it as Netflix may be accessed without parental control.”

Mental health professionals in various countries have also expressed concerns about the way the show ignores mental illness as a factor in suicide but seems to pin all the blame on Hannah’s high school tormentors.

“The creation of an elaborate suicide note that has revenge-like quality to it may be appealing to students who are already looking for a way out”.

But why has this screen adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel created so much more controversy than past depictions of teen suicide? The 1999 film The Virgin Suicides is about five teen sisters who kill themselves, and various other TV programmes have touched on the subject, but perhaps ‘13 Reasons Why’ has touched a raw nerve because of its depiction of modern technology and social media as integral to teen misery and social humiliation. Bullying on Facebook and social and sexual shaming are depicted as powerful factors in the young person’s course of action.

This social media and technology aspect is of course one that surfaces time and again in true-life tragic stories where young people have connected to others through the Internet to forge suicide pacts or research ways of taking their own life and choose copy cat methods. A game of challenges called ‘Blue Whale’ has also been much in the news recently as the ultimate challenge in the ‘game’ is to actually commit suicide, and this game has, for some reason, proved very attractive to young people.

A suicidal person’s state of mind is essentially unknowable. The methodical manner in which the process is undertaken is baffling to those bereaved. What are the mental processes that allow a suicidal person to create a suicide scene that can cause such trauma to their families? The darkness and deep despair which drive such actions must be understood through more awareness of mental health issues and more vigilance generally. And it is this vigilance that is perhaps a major reason for criticism of the Netflix show.

Best wishes,

Umber Khairi

The author is a former BBC broadcaster and producer, and one of the founding editors of Newsline.

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