13 Reasons Why: A Rundown of the Suicide Scene Controversy
Warning: Spoilers for season one of 13 Reasons Why below.
13 Reasons Why season one contains several scenes that may not be suitable for some viewers (including two painfully realistic depictions of rape), but it's a scene in the final episode that has caused the most controversy. Hannah's death is traumatizing no matter how you look at it, but the producers made a crucial change to her story. In Jay Asher's book, Hannah swallows a handful of pills, but in the show, she slits her wrists in the bathtub. It's shown in graphic detail, a decision that some viewers are calling unnecessary. "We worked very hard not to be gratuitous," executive producer Brian Yorkey said. "But we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide."
The audience has seemingly fallen into two categories: those who are praising the unflinchingly honest approach to teen suicide and those who are not. Since the show was released, Nic Sheff, who wrote episode six, has spoken out about the importance of showing the scene. Sheff is the subject of his father's bestselling memoir, Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction, and wrote openly about how his own suicide attempt influenced his opinion on showing Hannah's suicide: "When it came time to discuss the portrayal of the protagonist's suicide in 13 Reasons Why, I of course immediately flashed on my own experience. It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like — to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse."
Katherine Langford, who plays the ill-fated Hannah, has also defended the scene, saying that she's really proud of how they chose to handle the heavy issues. "We don't shy away from them," she told POPSUGAR's Quinn Keaney in February 2017. In Langford's home country of Australia, it's actually illegal to create content that promotes or provides instructions on a "particular method of committing suicide." While 13 Reasons Why in no way glamorizes or condones suicide (the whole point of the scene is to reveal how ugly it really is), the scene has caused a spike in calls to suicide hotlines in the country.
Representatives for the Australian group Headspace, a mental health foundation with a focus on young people, are claiming that the show "exposes viewers to risky suicide content." Their argument that even addressing teen suicide in a show like 13 Reasons Why means that teens will think about it as a possibility for them. "National and international research clearly indicates the very real impact and risk to harmful suicide exposure leading to increased risk and possible suicide contagion," said Kristen Douglas, the organization's national manager. "People have said the show has triggered their own vulnerabilities and made them consider whether suicide is a possible option for them."
While Netflix does put warnings before the episodes with graphic content (including the rape scenes), some feel that it's not doing enough to point viewers to hotlines. The only time the show does directly address the audience is at the end of "Beyond the Reasons," when executive producer Selena Gomez says that there's "absolutely nothing wrong with saying that you need help." She then plugs 13ReasonsWhy.info, which lists several sources, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
After the backlash, it seems like the series is really working extra hard to address these issues in the upcoming second season. Aside from adding additional trigger warnings at the beginning of season one, Netflix also conducted a research study through Northwestern University's Center on Media and Human Development, "Exploring How Teens and Parents Responded to 13 Reasons Why," to help them better prepare for season two. As a result, season two will include an introductory video from the cast members addressing which topics the show will cover.