Every once in a while, a series comes along that ignites a passionate and heartfelt conversation. This year, it has been the standout Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, which has attracted viewers of all ages. With its emotional and tragic premise (it recounts the events leading up to a high schooler's suicide, recounting bullying, sexual abuse, and other common — but rarely taken seriously — formative teenage interactions) it has triggered intense responses. The majority of reactions to the series have been positive, as many viewers and critics find that the subject matter highlights the epidemic of ruthless and thoughtless bullying in high school. But other organizations and mental health professionals feel that the graphic depiction someone actually taking their life is too much. Hannah Baker's (Katherine Langford) suicide scene, which occurs in the thirteenth and final episode of the series, is extremely realistic and upsetting to watch. This week, multiple foundations, like Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), have spoken out about the dangers of portraying such a real look at suicide, especially for young viewers who have suicide thoughts. It has been deemed dangerous by some, and has become the latest controversy regarding the series.
But now, one of the writers on the series is defending the show's choice to portray every detail of Hannah's death. In a poignant essay for Vanity Fair, writer Nic Sheff explains how hearing about one woman's suicide attempt saved him during his own. (Sheff is best known for his best-selling memoir, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction chronicling his addiction to crystal meth and many attempts at self-harm.) His personal connection to the show reveals just how much thought was put into each element of the show.
Sheff relates one life-saving moment he experienced to a viewer watching Hannah's suicide. He says that one night, he tried to take his life by swallowing dozens of pills and washing them down with alcohol. But then, he writes, "a miracle happened. Sitting there on the edge of the bathtub, I flashed upon a memory I had up until that point completely forgotten. I saw a woman’s face, covered in bruises, both eyes swollen shut. And I remembered her. I’d met her in the first rehab I ever checked into. Though she was in her 30s, her speech was slurred, her arm was in a full cast, her body was sick and bent, and she could walk only with a cane. She’d told her story in group one day."
He goes on to retell the story of the woman he once met — about how she attempted suicide, but lived. She, like him, had swallowed pills, hoping to die in her sleep. What happened, though, is that she "ran headlong toward the bathroom, but instead smashed face first into the sliding glass door, shattering the glass, breaking her arm, pulverizing her face, and collapsing unconscious in a pool of blood and vomit and whatever else. She woke up next morning in a pain unlike anything she thought was even possible. She crawled, moaning and crying, to a phone and dialed 911. She was bleeding internally, but she would live."
He credits the brutality of her story with pulling him out of his own suicide because of its intensity and how disturbing it felt to him at the time. "The whole story came back to me in heightened detail. It was an instant reminder that suicide is never peaceful and painless, but instead an excruciating, violent end to all hopes and dreams and possibilities for the future. The memory came to me like a shock. It staggered me. And it saved my life."
Sheff believes his personal experience with how one person's suicide attempt helped him combat his own justifies Hannah's suicide scene. Of course, that's not the case for everyone, and there's no right answer to this difficult question of whether or not a scene like that should be shown in a television series aimed at teenagers. But, it definitely starts a much-needed conversation about how to keep kids safe, and how to talk about depression and mental health.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.