By Caitlin Forbes
2017 has been a year about voices. The voices of those who are oppressed, angry, scared- those who feel like for so long that they have been hidden within the shadowy folds of cultural normality. Mental health awareness is no stranger to the trials that many of the other organizations and movements face. Movies, television shows, books, YouTube videos and social media all yell over each other in an attempt to grab our attention. Amidst all of the ploys to capture the modern viewer, there are some instances where something can become so popular and widely discussed that it has a direct vein into the mainstream public. While we can celebrate those who help highlight problems and misdoings, with the help comes some element of hurt.
Earlier this year the show “13 Reasons Why” appeared on Netflix. It was reactive to say the least. The teen show based off of a book written by Jay Asher, is about a group of teenagers coping with the loss of a fellow classmate Hannah Baker after she commits suicide. Baker leaves tapes that discusses how every main character within the show had to do with her ultimate decision to take her own life. This show was immediately popular as two opposing sides grew: one that romanticized the show, and the other that was horrified. I was on the later side.
So many people had decided that this show would help start the conversation about suicide, bullying and sexual assault, however the damage that also came with the release of this show was apparent. Reported cases of copycat suicides surfaced, because the show romanticized the idea that you could somehow see life after your suicide. I am not saying that it was intentional, but it conveyed the wrong idea. When you type in “suicides based” into Google, the first option is “suicide based on 13 reasons why,” which precedes “suicide based on cyberbullying,” “suicide based on bullying” and “suicide based on body image.” It is no secret that the show ignored the World Health Organization’s media guidelines when it came to the content of the show. Researchers, according to CNN among other sources, confessed their concerns about the explicit content within the show in regards to the way that suicide is framed. However, the show did not take these warnings into considerations.
It is important to talk about depression, bullying, sexual assault and suicide, but the main issue that I and many others have with this portrayal is the idea that you will be able to see how those are affected, after your death or from beyond the grave. It has gotten to the point where counselors have circulated a document made to explain to others that the ideas in the show are not concrete, and should not be used as a basis by any means.
Let’s compare this to another recent boom in popularity about mental health. On Oct 10, John Green released a new book, “Turtles All the Way Down,” which is a distinct change from his other works like “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Looking For Alaska.” This book is what destigmatizing mental health should look like. The main character Aza Holmes, struggles with a type of anxiety disorder, which is never explicitly named, however could possibly be obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). This story does everything that “13 Reasons Why” did not. The story surrounds a junior in high school who is “stuck in her head.” Without giving away too many spoilers, this novel is way more realistic and relatable than “13 Reasons Why.”
It is important to note that I am not saying that suicide, bullying or sexual assault does not happen. I am focusing more in the ways of conveying the storylines of two people who are both struggling with mental disorders at a very sensitive time within their lives. Both of the characters go through intense emotional and physical trials, both feel alone and trapped inside of a cycle of mental abuse, both shut themselves out. But one romanticizes what the other rationalizes.
I believe that the dividing factor remains within the endings. “13 Reasons Why” leaves the viewer with a sense of despair, hopelessness and overall frustration. When speaking about suicide it should be sad and powerful. But it should not leave a shred of doubt in anyone’s minds that you can get help. What this show did was eliminate all aspects of help that one struggling with suicidal thoughts would go to: parents, friends and school counselors all ended up turning their backs on Baker. Although “Turtles All the Way Down” does not speak on suicide, it does talk about the benefits (and frustrations) on getting help. It isn’t just a yellow brick road down to happiness just because Holmes has frequent visits with a therapist. This book leaves the reader with very mixed emotions: sadness, hopefulness and an eye towards the bigger picture that one must have when in the darkest of times.
Mental health is such an important issue to bring up and when done wrong it can push people past the edge or encourage the wrong types of reactions. Deep down I really wish that 13 Reasons Why was good, and I wish that I could just set aside the critiques that popped into my mind when I watched it, but after reading a book like “Turtles All the Way Down” I cannot refute the fact that there is a right and a wrong way to promote awareness about mental health.