Based on the 2007 bestselling young adult novel by Jay Asher, the new Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” tells the story of a teenage girl named Hannah Baker (played by Katherine Langford) who commits suicide, leaving behind a box full of cassette tapes listing the 13 reasons why she did it, each addressed to a person she feels is responsible. While the show has gotten great reviews, it has also been criticized for “romanticizing suicide” and not listing a hotline at the end of each episode for people to call if they are having suicidal thoughts. And some mental-health professionals have also expressed their concern for the graphic way the show depicts suicide, which could lead to suicide contagion.
In an essay for Vanity Fair titled “’13 Reasons Why’ Writer: Why We Didn’t Shy Away from Hannah’s Suicide,” one of the show’s writers, Nic Sheff, addresses the criticism. “From the very beginning, I agreed that we should depict the suicide with as much detail and accuracy as possible,” writes Sheff, who struggled for years with his addiction to crystal meth and suicidal ideation. “I even argued for it—relating the story of my own suicide attempt to the other writers.”
In his essay, Sheff reveals how he once tried to take his life by swallowing pills and “chasing them down with a bottle of whiskey.” But then he remembered the painful and frightening story of a woman he had met in the first rehab he had ever checked into who tried to commit suicide and ended up with internal bleeding. The memory prompted him to flush the rest of the pills and make himself throw up. “It was an instant reminder that suicide is never peaceful and painless, but instead an excruciating, violent end to all hopes and dreams and possibilities for the future,” he writes. “If that woman had not told me her story, I wouldn’t be here now.”
He added, “So when it came time to discuss the portrayal of the protagonist’s suicide in ’13 Reasons Why,’ I of course immediately flashed on my own experience. It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like — to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse.”
For Sheff, not portraying the suicide would have been simple irresponsible. “It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have not to show the death at all,” he writes.
“There are many reasons I’m proud to have worked on ’13 Reasons Why,’ Sheff writes. “But the thing I am the most proud of, in all honestly, is the way we decided to depict Hannah’s suicide—specially, the way Brian Yorkey wrote it, and Kyle Alvarez directed it. And so I stand behind what we did 100 percent. I know it was right, because my own life was saved when the truth of suicide was finally held up for me to see in all its horror—and reality.”