CATE O’BRIEN | OPINION COLUMNIST
For those who don’t know, 13 Reasons Why is a pretty popular teen book about a girl who committed suicide and left an audiotape for the people she blamed for her death explaining the reasons why she did it. I appreciate the book’s attempt to start a conversation about such a taboo topic, and the book certainly has touched the hearts of middle school girls everywhere. But it contains some very real problems with the portrayal of suicide that only contribute to the misconceptualization and romanticization of mental illness in media, and I think those problems deserve to be addressed.
First of all, depression and suicide are very complex. Like, super complex. If they weren’t, we’d have more answers about how to effectively treat and prevent them. Claiming that the protagonist’s suicide was based entirely off of the actions of those around her is simplifying a really complex issue. There may be some suicides that are entirely situational, but a lot of the time that’s not the whole story.
Additionally, and maybe more importantly, claiming that the protagonist’s suicide was based entirely off of the actions of those around her is really dangerous. The age group reading this novel is young, and emotional and vulnerable, and some of them have experienced the loss of a peer or friend to suicide. Many of them are looking for a reason why, and after reading that book, (or watching the new television show’s trailer, which literally states “they killed her” in large dramatic block print) they’re just going to feel even more guilty for something that was entirely out of their control.
Secondly, in the author’s attempt to draw attention to a problem that doesn’t get talked about enough, he fell into a frustrating trope: the sexy-beautiful-depressed-girl. If you start paying attention, this trope is used all the time in popular media, which would be great, if depression was sexy in any way at all. Spoiler: it’s not. But now, millions of teenagers may feel as if it is. Now, for these girls, depression is a beautiful, heartbroken girl, staring off into the distance in a black and white photograph. There might be a single tear down her cheek. That’s just not what depression is, and so it not only creates a falsely positive image of what living with depression is like, but also invalidates the actual struggle of people who live with depression.
Like I said, I do appreciate the author’s intention with this book. I worry, however, about more media surrounding the concept. The new Netflix show will definitely make a lot of money, but at what cost?