'13 Reasons Why' Writer Defends Depicting Graphic Suicide

"The most irresponsible thing we could've done would have been not to show the death at all," writes Nic Sheff.
Courtesy of Netflix

For as much as Netflix's 13 Reasons Why has been praised for raising awareness about teen suicide, the drama has been equally criticized for its graphic depiction of the suicide at the center of the series.

The drama, created by Brian Yorkey and based on the book by Jay Asher, revolves around Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) who explains her decision to commit suicide in a series of cassette tapes offering an explanation about why she opted to end her life. In addition to exploring teen suicide, the series also puts a spotlight on bullying and sexual assault.  

Writer Nic Sheff, in a deeply personal guest column for Vanity Fair published Wednesday, defended the show's decision to depict Hannah's graphic suicide in detail. Sheff revealed how his own suicide attempt played into the show and why writers and producers including Selena Gomez opted to feature the jarring scene in the series aimed at young adult viewers.

"… [W]hen 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," he wrote.

"It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could've done would have been not to show the death at all. In AA, they call it playing the tape: encouraging alcoholics to really think through in detail the exact sequence of events that will occur after relapse. It's the same thing with suicide. To play the tape through is to see the ultimate reality that suicide is not a relief at all — it's a screaming, agonizing, horror.

"Of course, the fact that we're even having these discussions speaks of real progress to me," he wrote, comparing the "silence equals death" slogan that surfaced in the 1980s with the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to teen suicide.

"When it comes to suicide, I believe the message should be exactly the same. Facing these issues head-on — talking about them, being open about them — will always be our best defense against losing another life," he wrote.

Sheff noted he was proud of 13 Reasons Why and how the series is helping to create a larger dialogue and, in success, hopefully help at-risk teens.

Weeks after the show's release on Netflix, mental health advocacy groups like Australia's Headspace criticized the series for what they believe "exposes viewers to risky suicide content."

"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 Headspace national manager Kristen Douglas this week. "People have said the show has triggered their own vulnerabilities and made them consider whether suicide is a possible option for them."

The episode in which Hannah's suicide is depicted warns viewers about content that "may not be suitable for younger audiences, including graphic depictions of violence and suicide."

For his part, creator Yorkey told The Hollywood Reporter that the graphic suicide scene was something the show's creative team contemplated. "We wanted to confront the fact that suicide is messy, ugly and it's incredibly painful," he said. "There's nothing peaceful or beautiful about it at all. It's horrific to endure and it's horrific for the people that a person who commits suicide leaves behind. We wanted to tell that story truthfully. And as difficult as it is to watch, it should be difficult to watch. If we make it easy to watch, then we're selling goods that we didn't want to sell."

Ultimately, Yorkey hopes 13 Reasons Why "sparks a conversation" with teenagers and adults about things that are happening to youth today around the world.

"What we hope, as good television can do, is that it gets people talking. If they can talk about what happened to Hannah and Jessica [who were raped] and what these kids went through, they can talk about what they're going through in their own lives. That has to happen first before anything can get better." 

The series concludes with a special 30-minute PSA called Beyond the Reasons, which features producers including Gomez as well as the cast, doctors, advocates and psychologists offering insight on how to get help or assist someone in need. 

Read Sheff's powerful guest column here.

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