Aziz Al-Sa'afin: 13 Reasons Why sets a dangerous precedent around mental health

OPINION: Netflix's 13 Reasons Why is raw, direct and officially one of the most confronting things I've ever seen.

And now, with more than 11 million tweets, it's officially the most talked about TV show this year.

It tells the story of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a teenage girl who commits suicide, and reveals the 13 reasons why 12 of her peers caused her to do it. The series is based around tapes Hannah records, in which she addresses each person individually.

The show really struck a chord with me: a heart-wrenching, soul-stripping, slap-in-the-face kind of chord.

It was a reality check, because although I was watching Hannah Baker, all I could see was my younger self.

13 Reasons Why flung me straight back to my high school years and instantly I started to remember little moments here and there, situations that could have pushed me toward a similar storyline, and memories of how I dodged the bullet (so to speak) and persevered.

Let's face it. High school can be a horrible place and human beings are shitty. It's easy to feel alone and unwanted, like Hannah did as she walked the school halls a mere shadow of herself.

The show features graphic scenes of rape and suicide, which has created controversy about the ways Hannah's issues were dealt with.

Mental health experts from around the world are divided.

Some say the show poses health risks for at-risk youth, especially those who have suicidal thoughts and are watching the series. Others suggest it provides an open forum of conversation and a valuable opportunity to shed light on something society shies away from.

In some ways, I agree with the latter view - the show breaks the taboo around depression and mental illness; around friendship, expectation and bullying. What was once seen as embarrassing and weak is actually a form of empowerment through admission. Talking openly is so extremely important and can make a world of difference for anyone going through what Hannah did.

It certainly did for me.

But that's as far as my praise for the show goes.

It's great it's making people think about their actions, about how their words could impact someone so strongly, and how it's ok to ask if someone is alright.

But then what? The show fails to represent the reality of services available to a young person.

Hannah only talks to one health professional, a councillor who bats her off in Hollywood-like fashion.

It sets a dangerous precedent, telling young viewers talking to an adult isn't an option. It's always an option and that's the problem with this show.

Hannah felt like she couldn't speak out; I understand that completely. But it's the implication she had exhausted all her options that I'm at odds with.

  • Option one: Hannah had incredibly loving parents. She had such a great relationship with them and could talk openly about anything.
  • Option two: Hannah also had Clay Jensen, the other main character of the show who worshipped the ground she walked on and would have listened to anything she said - and she knew it.
  • Option three: Her school counsellor let her down, but that was just one of many services she had access to. Whether that was in the form of talking to another teacher, another health professional not connected to the school, or a simple anonymous phone call to a helpline available. That was my saving grace.

I know what you're thinking: we wouldn't have had a television show had she done all these things. And yes, here we are now talking about it which is why I say it's the one good thing that's come out of the show. I would just say if you're going to deal with such sensitive issues that so many people face at some point in their lives, be prepared to explain the whole picture, not just a fraction.

I learnt that help was always around and I just needed to be ready to speak up. Thankfully I did and here I am today writing about it.

If you feel you need help dealing with depression or a difficult time in your life, call Lifeline on 0800 543 354 or the Suicide Crisis Helpline on 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). Both are available 24/7. 

Aziz Al-Sa'afin is The AM Show's social media correspondent.