The release of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why was initially met with almost universally favourable reviews. The series was described as “the best show in years” and praised for its “unsettling visual genius”, while breaking social media and Netflix records.
But as more and more people watched, the tide slowly began to turn. People started to question whether the show – albeit powerful and compelling viewing – should, ethically, have ever been made.
For some, the answer was a resounding no.
The risks associated with the graphic depiction of suicide are vast and well-documented, and for many suicide prevention advocates, this danger far outweighed the artistic value of a popular TV show.
Is 13 Reasons Why Helpful or Dangerous? on The Binge. Post continues…
But now, one of the writers of the series has written an op ed for Vanity Fair, sharing the very personal reason he stands by the show’s decision to portray Hannah’s suicide on-screen.
Nic Sheff says when he read the pilot for 13 Reasons Why, he “immediately knew it was a project I wanted to be involved in”, partly because he himself attempted suicide as a young person.
In the past few weeks, Sheff has read and heard countless pieces of content arguing it would have been better not to show Hannah’s suicide – instead leaving the method, location and nature of what happens to her to the audience’s imagination.
But he doesn’t agree this would’ve been the right approach. In fact, he says it was the imagery of a graphic suicide like Hannah’s that ultimately saved his life.
“From the very beginning, I agreed that we should depict the suicide with as much detail and accuracy as possible,” he writes. “I even argued for it—relating the story of my own suicide attempt to the other writers.”
While there were significant differences, there were also some similarities between the reasons Hannah chose to end her life and the reasons Sheff tried to end his. He says they were both overwhelmed with the “feeling that nothing we ever did could ever repair the damage done… that all last traces of hope had been blotted out completely”.
But when Sheff went to attempt to take his own life - using a method I won't describe here - there was one thing that stopped him.
He saw the face of a woman he'd met years earlier, who had attempted suicide. She thought it would be calm and peaceful, but instead woke up in the worst pain she could have possibly imagined. It was violent and excruciating and terrifying.
Remembering this woman made Sheff realise there's absolutely nothing peaceful about suicide - about ending a life full of dreams and hopes and possibilities.
"It saved my life," Sheff writes. "The myth and mystique had been shattered in a moment’s remembering."
"I felt like I was on fire in a burning building, and suicide would be like jumping from a window to end the pain. But what that woman’s story showed me was that jumping from the building isn’t the end of pain: it’s only the beginning of a still yet more unimaginable pain to come."
"If that woman had not told me her story, I wouldn’t be here now," Sheff says.
Some of the Australian services offering mental health support. (Post continues after gallery.)
So when it came to considering how to depict Hannah's suicide in 13 Reasons Why, he felt the writers had the "perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like... to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off".
In fact, Sheff believes the worst thing the show could've done would've been to not show Hannah's suicide. To leave it up to the viewer's imagination - and allow them to visualise relief, rather than the terrifying reality.
"I know it was right," Sheff says. "Because my own life was saved when the truth of suicide was finally held up for me to see in all its horror—and reality."
Perhaps 13 Reasons Why will have the same effect on the young people who watch it. Or perhaps it won't.
It's a risk - a major one - that those involved in the show were clearly willing to take.
If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local headspace centre here or chat to them online, here. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.