What hit show '13 Reasons Why' taught me about mental health

Monday 4th December 2017

What Netflix's '13 Reasons Why' taught me about mental health

As the 80s music begins and the scene of an American high school comes into focus, you'd be forgiven for thinking, “Not another formulaic Netflix show!” But after watching a few episodes, I realised there was more to 13 Reasons Why than a shallow story about the difficulties of being a teenager.

In fact, it's really positive that we have got to this point where films and TV shows are really delving into the subject of mental health in young people. Just look at films such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Donnie Darko. Yes, these examples just so happen to have ever-so-awesome retro playlists too, but that’s not the only reason they are so highly praised.

You know you've watched something truly powerful when you are still haunted by it days later and that's what happened with 13 Reasons Why. I thought about what it was that got to me and I realised it was because some of the issues are so relatable.

So here are three reasons (I won't ramble on for 13) on why this Netflix show is so good at dealing with mental health. Warning - spoilers ahead!

 

1. It shows how other people can impact your mental health

Our friends have the power to build us up, but when they let us down, they have the power to hurt us deeply too. This is why having a strong support network you can trust makes a huge difference.

When the main character Hannah has her coffee dates with her two best friends at Monets [sic], she feels like a chat and a hot chocolate can solve just about anything. But when they both betray her and she is left alone, her mental health starts to spiral out of control.

Depression can be inherent, but major life events such as being bullied or sexually abused can be a big catalyst. By the end of the series, Hannah is showing signs of post traumatic stress, having distressing flashbacks and feeling emotionally numb.

And it isn't just Hannah suffering from mental health issues. Her ex-best friend, Jessica has a flashback about a similar trauma and starts drinking in an attempt to forget her painful experience.

 

2. It shows how important it is to speak up

Hannah is often misunderstood in the show and either doesn't have a chance to express her side of the story, or doesn't take advantage of those moments when she could have opened up to someone.

In the first episode, everyone at school teases her because they presume she had a sexual encounter with Justin in a playground. No one bothers to ask if this is true and even Clay is judgemental. When she and Clay are in Jessica's bedroom at the party later in the series, she has a chance to tell Clay what she is feeling, but instead she gets angry and pushes him away – a common thing when you are dealing with strong and painful emotions.

By the time she opens up to her counsellor at school, it's too late. She's in a vulnerable state, he is distracted & unhelpful and her mind is already made up to take her life. Similarly, we see Jessica about to tell her father about her attack, and though we don't see his reaction, the audience is led to believe that she will get the support she needs.

If a teacher, parent or Clay had given her the chance to open up and if she had the courage to talk about her mental state earlier on, she more than likely would have got the help she needed too.

 

3. The characters are multi-dimensional

Finally, I think what got to me about this series is that, the characters are realistic, and what makes them realistic is that they are multi-dimensional. They all have their problems, their pasts, their strengths and their weaknesses.

Justin is a character you hate one minute for being so cocky and insensitive, but who you sympathise with the next, because you see him at his most vulnerable in his home life. Everyone has their own baggage, their own motivations and their own opinions and so you really emotionally invest in them.

Ultimately, it shows that people are complicated, and it's great that TV shows and films are not just full of goodies and baddies these days. They are moving away from the binary, the black and white, the good and evil and are daring to investigate those grey areas of life because life barely is ever that clear cut.

When a drama works well, it allows us to have a cathartic experience. We smile when the characters are happy and we feel their pain, too. Yes, 13 Reasons Why is dark, but it needs to be so it can be powerful and honest. Once Hannah's story is out in the open, there is a glint of light and hope too.

 

If you feel affected by any of the themes from the TV show you can reach out to your local GP, contact Samaritans on their free phone number 116123 or contact a professional within a mental health role (like Shauna) for help and support.

Guest wrote by Phoebe Seymour for Hypnotherapy In Sheffield.

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