Welcome to Season 2 of Novel Feelings! We’re kicking things off with Thirteen Reasons Why, a book associated with a lot of controversy. We talk about the book’s portrayal of suicide and why it makes us uncomfortable. Discussion topics also include bullying, sexism, and the lack of mental health support in the story. As an exciting bonus, we chat to researcher Dr Fincina Hopgood about the controversies and cultural impact of the Netflix adaptation.
Mental health issues covered: suicide (including discussion around thought processes, behaviour/method and impact on a community), depression (though not specifically named in the book), trauma, and bullying.
Additional trigger warnings: sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault.
If this discussion brings up anything for you and you are in Australia, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website for other chat options. For international numbers, try visiting suicidestop.com for a comprehensive list of crisis numbers in various countries.
Listen to the podcast:
About the Book
You can’t stop the future.
You can’t rewind the past.
The only way to learn the secret . . . is to press play.
Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker – his classmate and crush – who died by suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah’s voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why.
Clay spends the night crisscrossing his town with Hannah as his guide. He becomes a firsthand witness to Hannah’s pain, and as he follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his town, what he discovers changes his life forever.
About the Author
Jay Asher was born in Arcadia, California. He attended Cuesta College right after graduating from high school. It was here where he wrote his first two children’s books for a class called Children’s Literature Appreciation. Throughout his life he worked in various establishments, including as a salesman in a shoe store and in libraries and bookstores. Many of his work experiences had an impact on some aspect of his writing.
His works include #1 New York Times bestselling novel Thirteen Reasons Why (published in 2007) as well as: The Future of Us, What Light, and Piper.
About Our Guest
Fincina Hopgood is a lecturer in Screen Studies in the School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New England (UNE). She is a regular guest on ABC Radio and community radio stations, discussing portrayals of mental illness in film and television, and has written about her research for The Conversation. Fincina is working on a range of research projects investigating the benefits of screen media and new media for mental health and wellbeing, in collaboration with colleagues at UNE, University of Melbourne and University of New South Wales.
Thirteen Reasons Why makes us uncomfortable. First, its suicide-as-revenge narrative can glamorise suicide – it implies that if you do it, everyone who’s ever wronged you will pay for what they’ve done. This is problematic: suicide is final, and no one has control over what happens in its aftermath. It does not help that Hannah’s tone, especially in the beginning, is reminiscent of Gossip Girl or Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do. We also take issues with the absolute lack of mental health support that’s available to Hannah in this book. We acknowledge that ineffective professionals, stigma, and flawed system exist in real life too. However, it would have been nice to see a non-toxic friend, a present parent, or a trained mental health professional somewhere along the way – they do exist!
There are things that Thirteen Reasons Why did well. It does a good job portraying how seemingly little things can accumulate to have a profound effect on someone’s mental health. It tried to send the message that stigma about suicidal thoughts, rape culture, and misogyny are harmful, and that we should reach out if we think someone is struggling. As Priscilla experienced when she read this book at 16, this book can resonate with some people. However, if this is the prevailing narrative in pop culture, people who need support may get the impression that there is no help available at all, and depression always ends in tragedy. This is not true. There is help, and there are other possibilities. We need more stories that demonstrate those hopeful possibilities.
Relevant mental health resources:
- BeyondBlue and Head to Health provides a range of resources about identifying and coping with suicidal thoughts and feelings, whether it is for yourself or for someone you care about.
- ReachOut has some information about coping with the suicide of a loved one. So does Lifeline, with some Australia-specific resources.
- Mindframe has a set of guidelines for media on how to communicate safely and accurately about suicide.
- For young people, Orygen has created Chatsafe to help them communicate safely online about suicide .
More stories like Thirteen Reasons Why:
- There are a lot of tragic stories featuring suicide, but we’d like to focus on the non-tragic ones for our recommendation list. Some books with a more hopeful tone featuring suicide/people with suicidal thoughts include It’s Kind of A Funny Story, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Picture Us in the Light. The TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also offers a different kind of narrative of suicide.
Voices from Lived Experience
Here are some of the views we found from people who have experienced suicidal thoughts and/or survived suicide attempts:
- In Medium, Kayla Feldman talks about how the book saved her life: “When I found this book, it reached me in a place I didn’t know I could be reached… It was hauntingly familiar to me and yet Hannah was a character whose experience was so different from my own … I found myself in her. I wanted everyone to read this book. I wanted everyone to see how a snowball becomes an avalanche, how to spot the signs of impending suicide in a young person.”
- In The Mighty, Alyse Ruriani (mental health advocate and suicide attempt survivor) is critical of the show. She argues that the show simplifies suicide, perpetuates the idea that suicide is ‘selfish’, and does not show any successful help-seeking. “The story acts as a warning and that moral of treating people well and being aware of how our words and actions affect others is a good one, I just think it gets muddled and lost at times.”
- In Season 2 of the show You Can’t Ask That in Australia, there is an episode featuring suicide attempt survivors. Although Thirteen Reasons Why is not referenced in this episode, it is worth watching.
- We also recommend No Feeling is Final podcast by Honor Eastly.
On the TBR Pile
- If you have any recommendations of books that explore similar themes to Thirteen Reasons Why, let us know!