13 Reasons Why – too graphic or not graphic enough?

Probably some *spoilers* below. And obviously discussion about *suicide* below though I’ve tried to keep details to a minimum.

There are links here if you need immediate support: Helpful links

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This isn’t a review as such, but a response to the main controversy surrounding the show – the depiction of suicide. I don’t want to get too much into my thoughts on things like dialogue, characters etc. It’s not what people are talking about. Suffice to say I was kind of bored by the first few episodes but I’m fully aware I’m not the target demographic so that might be to be expected.

What felt right:
To me, the tying together of events, community and culture as triggers for one young girl’s overwhelming distress and ultimately her death was important. Too often we think of suicide happening to people who are ‘just’ ill.

This focus is important, especially now, as it broadens our view of where things are going wrong. Many people die by suicide, not because they are ill but because the systems around us are unjust and provide poor support.

It means we have to focus on our society and culture and the ways in which people are let down when vulnerable or systems that perpetuate injustice. By focusing our suicide prevention efforts psychiatric diagnoses, we are missing a massive set of factors – people who are let down, or worse abused and traumatised by the society and culture we have created. That is something we all need to think deeply about, especially coming up to a general election. How can we create a society where people are supported and cared for?

The scenes of sexual violence were hard to watch but they didn’t feel, to me, gratuitous or sanitised. The discussion around sexual violence felt like it was, on balance, a helpful one.

Especially the exploration of denial and eventual acceptance of what had occured by both survivors and those around them.

For these reasons I felt that the audience that may gain the most insight from this show may be the people around those experiencing crisis, rather than those in crisis.

Importantly it has been noted by others that trauma and emotional difficulties can stem from issues more subtle and yet unrelentingly painful than the obvious traumas in this story. That is true and worthy of a story of its own. The traumas in the story though are sadly very common – more common than people care to admit to themselves and yet so often kept secret for years, if not whole lifetimes.

The main bit:

The main reason I sat through the whole show was because of the biggest controversy – the graphic depiction of the suicide itself.

I knew there were guidelines around describing specifics about means, methods or places relating to suicides as this is thought to lead to further deaths being triggered. So I could see why there has been outcry over this scene.

On the other hand, I also knew some of the most “effective” (in an anecdotal sense) deterrents I’ve come across, include specific discussion around methods that go into excruciatingly painful detail about the effects on your body, the ways methods can go wrong and the long term complications you may be left with if an attempt fails. They discuss the agony and the limitations of methods in such graphic detail that the effect is the exact opposite of glamourising or sanitising the act and in fact can be a really helpful deterrent.

So I wanted to know where this show fit in.

The scene in question is triggering because it depicts an act graphically, but to me, there’s sense of relief and a clean ending of pain associated with it which is what makes it so triggering. There’s pain in the scene but it is temporary and doesn’t seem too difficult to bear and then it is over.

It was nowhere near as uncomfortable or painful to watch as the the rest of the difficult scenes in the show. That’s surely a red flag.

So it missed the mark on the use of specifics to deter.

Other helpful deterrents to suicide I’ve come across previously include the insight that what you might be searching for – an ending, to be heard, relief, are things you can’t actually experience or be aware of, if you go through with it.

You will not know how people react to your death or whether your pain will be validated or whether your suffering will trigger any change or repercussions for anyone who has wronged you.

In using the voice of someone who has died, and, even in some scenes, her visual presence, it felt to me like Hannah was able to experience all those things, witness the changes in her community, get some closure and feel heard. I know she’s clearly already dead from the beginning, but this is the effect the use of her presence throughout the show had on me.

So while I think there’s been some good discussion around trauma, bullying and mental health, the depiction of suicide itself was dealt with in a problematic, potentially harmful way in my opinion.

I think it could be really triggering for those who are already in crisis and is a huge missed opportunity to reach a wide audience.

The show neither holds back from mentioning specific methods (which makes it too graphic), but also fails to fully communicate the agony, limitations and lack of closure the act entails (making it not graphic enough). This leaves us with the worst of both worlds in terms of approaches to safely discussing suicide.

That’s my opinion anyway.

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