The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why begins with a teenage boy receiving a package containing seven cassette tapes.
The tapes come with a specific set of instructions. The person who receives them is to listen to them, then pass them to the next person on the list.
When Clay Jensen, the young teenager who first finds the tapes, presses play, he hears the haunting voice of his close friend Hannah Baker who recently died by suicide.
“I’m about to tell you the story of my life — more specifically, why my life ended,” she says.
“And if you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.”
Listen: The Binge team argues about whether 13 Reasons Why is powerful or problematic. Post continues below.
This is the fundamental hook of the series: uncovering the reasons why 17-year-old Hannah chose to end her life.
In the final episode, we’re shown Hannah’s suicide in graphic detail. The blood and her pained screams are deeply disturbing, and we’ve written previously about the inherent danger in airing such a scene.
But the depiction of an explicit suicide scene isn’t the only grave mistake 13 Reasons Why makes.
There’s a far more subtle and far less topical thread running through Hannah’s story that sends a fictitious message about the nature of mental health and suicide: the idea that one’s own well being is as simple as cause and effect, and there are tangible ‘reasons’ why a person chooses to end their life.
For thousands of years, people have tried to answer the question of why humans become depressed. In the fifth century B.C., Hippocrates described a condition called ‘melancholia,’ which he believed was caused by too much black bile in the spleen. Greek historian Herodotus wrote about mental illness as a form of demonic possession, and in more recent times, increasingly complex explanations have looked at neurochemistry as a potential cause.