health

"There are never 13 Reasons Why a person takes their own life."

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.

We don't know what causes depression or suicide. Image via Netflix.
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If there's one thing we know for sure it's that we don't know what causes depression, feelings of hopelessness, and for some people, suicide.

What seems to be clear is that there are risk factors that might cause depression in individuals who are already predisposed to the illness - for example abuse, interpersonal conflict, or health problems.

But the impossibly complex interplay between genes and environment means we can never clearly identify what 'causes' any emotional experience, let alone any mental disorder.

The other issue is this: depression can generate negative life events. Researchers have examined what they call 'dependent' and 'independent' negative life events - distinguishing between those negative events that are outside our control (death of a relative, a natural disaster), and those negative events in which our own behaviour might play a role (relationship breakdowns, interpersonal conflict).

Major depressive disorder can 'cause' self-induced negative life events, and the way in which this occurs isn't difficult to imagine. People with depression have pessimistic beliefs about their ability to manage aspects of their lives, they feel helpless, tend to ruminate over relatively small adverse events, and might become closed off from family and friends. These behaviours over time may lead to poor outcomes in life - in interpersonal relationships, or performance at work or school.

Some of the Australian services offering mental health support. (Post continues after gallery.)

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The relationship between depression and negative events is also a basic lesson in attention. A negative mindset makes it far easier to spot and catastrophise the bad things that inevitably happen in life; things you might ignore or overcome much more easily if you were healthy.

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Certain life events, like the death of a loved one or sexual abuse or vicious bullying, have the potential to gravely affect a person's mental health, and there are some negative life events that have an alarming relationship with depression and suicide.

But 13 Reasons Why doesn't tell the full story. And most of all, it doesn't tell a helpful or empowering story.

Many of us have been personally touched by the sickening reality of suicide. It might have been a friend we hadn't seen in years or a relative we were incredibly close with, but regardless of the circumstances, another person's suicide is never our fault.

And the thought we might have been one of the reasons why someone took their own life is not only deeply disturbing but entirely inaccurate.

A person's suicide is never the 'fault' of those around them. Image via Netflix.

It doesn't work that way. The deeply depressed brain isn't logical or rational. It's overwhelmed by a thing none of us can understand - that's what makes death by suicide so impossibly difficult to comprehend.

The suicide of any one individual is not a problem for us to solve - because there simply is no answer.

All we can do is look at the risk factors on a large scale, and do our best to support people who are vulnerable. Ultimately, our mental health is something each of us need to prioritise and foster - and we need to build resilience so that when bad things happen in our lives, which they inevitably will, we can cope.

The 'reasons' in 13 Reasons Why are one of the major downfalls of the show, because they simplify and entirely misrepresent suicide. They also promote the message that suicide is an acceptable solution when you gather enough 'reasons'.

There are never clearly discernible reasons for such a tragic event, and it's crucial we remember that.

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 callLifeline Australia on 13 11 14.
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