When I watched 13 Reasons Why, I was in the grip of my first experience of acute anxiety.
A sequence of stressful life events converged until I was engulfed – out of the blue – by the absolute conviction that there was no way through the difficulties I was dealing with.
Two years on, I consider myself fully recovered, thanks to a switched-on GP, a year of anti-anxiety medication and counselling, and a very supportive network of family and friends.
But at my lowest, I was plagued by intrusive thoughts and an immobilising fear of the future.
The things I watched and read had an acutely powerful impact on me, much more so than when I’m mentally fit and well. I found myself dwelling on depressing or bleak ideas and thinking in negative spirals. Anything related to suicide or hopelessness played like a loop in my mind for hours afterwards.
Like many people who have experienced anxiety or depression, I am pleased to hear that Netflix has finally listened to many of the mental health professionals who raised concerns and have deleted the suicide scene from its teen drama 13 Reasons Why.
An adaption of a novel by Jay Asher, the series focuses on the suicide of a 17-year-old high school student, Hannah Baker, and 13 cassette tapes she makes prior to her death. And in the scene, she is depicted as taking her own life in her bathroom.
The decision to edit it two years after publication will no doubt raise questions, especially because it appears well-timed to coincide with the imminent launch of season three.
But until now, the show’s producers vehemently defended it. One of its writers, Nic Sheff, wrote a compelling guest column for Vanity Fair about how his own suicide attempt informed his conviction that ‘our best defense against losing another life’ is being truthful about suicide.
Now Netflix appears to have changed its tune, two years later. But why did they leave it so long to edit out the gruesome details?
I wonder how many people have watched that scene over the past two years and been negatively impacted by it. Editing it out now can’t undo that.
The debate sparked by that scene earned the show a lot of coverage and whilst I applaud Netflix’s decision to axe the scene, the cynic in me wonders if it was a PR stunt all along. The decision to edit it two years after publication will no doubt raise questions, especially because it appears well-timed to coincide with the imminent launch of season three.
As a mum of three – one of whom is a teenager and an avid Netflix fan – I’m all for dramas that address difficult issues and put the spotlight on mental health. My generation grew up watching Grange Hill and its ‘Just Say No’ anti-drugs campaign, after all.
But when it comes to tackling serious issues such as suicide, programme-makers have a duty of care to portray it responsibly and to ensure they are listening to the feedback from mental health professionals when they have got it wrong.
We all know there are links between suicide and what people see on TV, read or hear in the media – hence reporting guidelines for journalists when covering suicide, and the outcry from experts in response to that scene.
I lost a friend to suicide last year and it left me unable to watch past season one of 13 Reasons Why, but it also made me speak up more often about the support available for those experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Let’s not waste this moment. Instead of circuitously debating the rights and wrongs of graphically depicting suicide on TV, let’s use this groundswell of opinion on the subject to turn the spotlight on those resources.
The charity Samaritans provides support, free of charge, to anyone in emotional distress throughout the UK and Ireland, and their telephone helpline (116 123) is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
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