13 Reasons Why writer explains how he addresses criticisms of glamourising suicide: 'We had to be honest'

Olivia Petter

After a highly controversial three seasons that have continued to elicit furore from parents and mental health professionals, 13 Reasons Why has returned with a fourth series.

The US programme tells the story of 17-year-old Hannah Baker, who takes her own life after suffering a series of harrowing encounters inflicted by classmates – including sexual assault – the retelling of which we witness posthumously thanks to audio tapes recorded by Hannah in the lead up to her death.

Set within the context of a glossy American high school drama, the series – on which Selena Gomez is an executive producer – was accused of glamourising suicide by presenting Hannah’s death as a revenge tragedy, skimming over crucial nuances and prompting fears of copycat simulations.

The second season landed on the global streaming platform on Friday May 18 in 2018, the timing of which had already been labelled “callous” by the Royal College of Psychiatrists given that this coincided with exam season.

“Suicide is not a soap opera,” explains Ged Flynn, chief executive, PAPYRUS the national charity dedicated to preventing young suicides in the UK.

“It is an unimaginable tragedy. It is complex and contributory factors are varied,” he told The Independent.

Despite the flagrant bullying Hannah encounters, neither her peers nor her parents pick up on signs she may be suicidal.

Obviously this highlights how incredibly difficult it can be to detect these, however, critics argued it may also discourage teens struggling with similar issues from seeking help as the programme presents us with a culture that is deprived of support.

Hannah’s mother (played by Kate Walsh) addressing reporters at the trial for her daughter’s death (Netflix)

Plus, given that we only hear Hannah’s point of view posthumously, the show was scathed for presenting her trajectory as fatalistic from the outset and subsequently presenting her ​death as inevitable.

Flynn chastised the decision to depict Hannah’s suicide on screen in the season finale - in which she is seen bleeding to death in a bath after slitting her wrists – as “unforgivable”, claiming that it went against advice regarding sensitively dramatising the subject on television.

While contentious, this was hugely important to writer Bryan Yorkey, who, in a conversation with The Independent ahead of the release of the second series, explained that he wanted his representation of suicide to be as authentic as possible in order to amplify its tragic realities.

“We had to be honest about the painful reality of suicide,” he said of his screenplay for the novel written by Jay Asher, who revealed to the New York Times that he was partly inspired to write the book after a relative of his attempted suicide.

“To shy away from it, or worse, to make it look less painful than it is, would be dishonest and deceptive in the worst way,” Yorkey added.

“We needed to be clear that the experience was horrific and that the pain for those left behind is devastating.”

He clarified that it was by no means his intention to endorse Hannah’s choice, but rather, to show viewers that there is nothing glamorous about suicide or its consequences.

But critics would argue that such a perception is inevitable when you put suicide on television, particularly within the undeniable gloss that is synonymous with teen dramas complete with high-end production value, an emotionally-triggering soundtrack and a major publicity campaign.

That’s not to say there aren’t benefits to putting these issues on screen, so long as the subject matter is handled sensitively and is not over-simplified.

Clay, played by Dylan Minnette (Netflix)

“It’s important for dramatic representations to stick to the reality of suicidal behaviour as much as possible,” a spokesperson for Samaritans told The Independent.

“Suicide should not be presented in a way that glorifies the behaviour, or promotes it as a typical response to everyday problems.”

They added that the positive response to 13 Reasons Why showed there was clearly an appetite for dramas of this nature and that producing suicide storylines can be beneficial from an educational perspective.

Research from Northwestern University revealed that season one of the show had a positive impact on its teenage viewers.

The multinational study of more than 5,000 viewers revealed that teenagers and young adults found that the show helped them to better understand and process a whole host of difficult topics beyond suicide, such as bullying and sexual assault.

Among parents who watched the show, 56 per cent reported that doing so prompted them to discuss these issues with their children.

Yorkey took criticisms of glorification on board and worked closely with expert organisations across the world to develop the storyline for season two, which extended beyond the narrative told in Asher’s 2007 novel.

A central theme of season two is recovery and the journey that these characters go on in the wake of the tragedy from the last season,” he said.

“The season explores themes of community and responsibility, such as in what ways are we responsible for each other and how can we take better care of each other.”

Yorkey added that truth and justice will be “big themes” too, suggesting that viewers may see the character of Bryce face accountability for sexual assault.

“This season is driven by the trial following Hannah’s death, in which her parents sue the school district. We learn that the road to recovery isn’t straightforward for teenagers or parents,” Yorkey added.

“Healing looks different for everyone and there will be both light and dark moments over the course of the journey.”

If you’ve been affected by this article, you can seek help and advice from the below organisations: