Thirteen Reasons … Why?

Thirteen Reason Why’s second season might have the united support of mental health groups
across Australia, but how does the series’ graphic content sit with its teenage audience?
Penny Burfitt investigates.

Suicide, sexual assault, bullying, school shootings – 13 Reasons Why seems to have neatly packaged every pertinent youth issue into its second season.

The series, which features Selena Gomez as executive producer, became an overnight sensation when it hit Netflix in March last year, quickly becoming the most popular online series in the US – a trend it repeated when it returned for its second season this May.

The first season controversially revolved around 13 tape recordings left by troubled teen Hannah Baker for her high school peer group to listen to following her suicide. The first season ended with a now infamously graphic suicide scene that stirred up even more controversy than the depictions of sexual assault earlier in the season, and had mental health groups and schools up in arms over what was perceived as dangerous material.

The second season follows the aftermath of the tapes, bringing the events of the first season before the justice system with mixed result. While the second season contains just as much, if not more graphic content than the first season, it has remarkably been better received from mental health organisations. Some have argued too well received.

Season 2 brings incidents like rape before a court of law. Credit: Netflix

While many viewers, parents and media commentators have argued the content could have a detrimental effect on those who watch it, most Australian mental health groups have remained conspicuously silent.

Everymind, a national organisation dedicated to the prevention of mental illness and suicide, which previously slammed the show for its first season, was the only organisation that would speak with Hatch, and praised the second series.

Jennifer Howard, Everymind’s suicide prevention project officer, told Hatch that – along with MindFrame – it collaborated with Netflix on the second season, putting in place content warnings and crisis support which she believed made the show a positive and influential force among students, schools and parents.

“Netflix came to us late last year and wanted to hear our ideas,” Ms Howard said.

“We said that if we are on the front foot with new shows that have sensitive content, we can help with strategies for supporting safe conversations.”

Ms Howard said the new measures introduced for season 2 were sufficient to resolve the organisation’s previous concerns.

“The key addition to the release of season 2 has been the provision of help-seeking information and access to regional crisis support with the aim of promoting safe conversations amongst peers, parents and carers,” she said.

“[The added safety measures] allow viewers to access this series and encourage safe conversations with regionally specific information.”

MindFrame was unavailable for comment, and other organisations such as BlackDog deferred to EveryMind.

However the united front coming from health organisations appears at odds with the experiences of a large portion of the show’s target audience, who have had a much more varied reaction to the second season.

Some found the series uplifting.

While others found the content downright disturbing.

As for the warnings, many said they did not pay them any attention, if they noticed them at all.

Warnings not enough 

High school student Mercedes Dunn told Hatch that her experience with the show was “negative”, and confused the issues more.

“The warnings didn’t change my reactions or really prepare me (for the content),” she said.

“It actually seemed to confuse the conversation more. It didn’t really inspire anyone to talk from a personal stance about these matters with their friends or families.

“People would talk about it like they would talk about any show, like Gossip Girl, or Pretty Little Liars.”

The show’s content warnings have had little impact on the way certain teens consume the show. Credit: Netflix

Another high school student, Mia Passarelli, told Hatch that, for her too, the new warnings in season 2 went unnoticed.

“I think that the warnings at the beginning of season 2 are quite the same to season 1,” she said.

“I think they should give a more detailed description of what could possibly lie within an episode.”

However Mia also said the show had sparked positive conversations with her friends.

“It has made me feel more comfortable to speak to people about the issues presented in the series,” she said.

“It has made me feel like I have some sort of insight to what people may be feeling who are in such situations and it has helped me reach out effectively to friends who are suffering and has allowed me to help them.”

For others however, the show will always touch a nerve too raw to be justified.

Student Elissa Bell has suffered from mental illness, and says that as someone who can directly relate to the show’s main character, Hannah, she isn’t impressed.

“It doesn’t really deserve a spot on any media platform,” she said decisively.

“The fact is that it’s on Netflix and is branded straight up for teens [amongst whom] depression and mental health issues are high, like most suicides are in that age bracket. So it doesn’t float with me.”

Censorship not appropriate for ‘art’

Dr Ann Luce, a senior lecturer in Journalism and Communications at Bournesmouth University, has long been an unexpected voice of approval of the series, although for very different reasons.

Dr Luce told Hatch that what she describes as the “moral panic” surrounding the show was unjustified and borders on censorship.

“I disagree with quite a few of my colleagues across the world on the calls for censorship. I thought that was an overreaction to season 1,” she said.

“In some circles you would say that TV programs are actually art, and should we really be censoring art?”

Dr Luce believes the show has opened a conversation that was previously considered taboo.

“Even though all these people have been in uproar about Thirteen Reasons Why you can honestly say that it has opened up the conversations around the topic of suicide,” she said.

“We’re talking more about it, I’ve been interviewed more times in the last year and it’s helping us open up more conversations for sure.”

Dr Luce believes the series has opened important conversations. Credit: Netflix

Ultimately Dr Luce, who has worked extensively researching coverage and reporting of suicide, concluded that responsible portrayal of suicide and rape is less about the explicit and more about the gratuitous.

“I definitely don’t agree with the fact that media reporting guidelines should apply to fictional television,” she said.

“To my mind what responsible portrayal means is that there’s not just a suicide thrown in for the sake of a suicide. In this story line for example the whole program is built around the fact that this girl is recording in essence a suicide note on cassette tapes; that’s in essence what it’s about.”

However for Elissa the line between gratuity and glorification remains too blurred, and the potential for harm too high to justify the show.

“What the show shows is the after, and it glamorises the after, and says that people are going to be so sad when you’re gone and shit,” she said.

“Me having seen that then? That would have just burnt that idea into my head.

“It’s a complete glamourised version of one of the most terrible things that can happen. There’s no way to pretty it up.”

If you or someone you know needs help, mental health professionals are available at:
Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 
Headspace on 1800 650 890
Lifeline on 13 11 14