What I learned from Hannah
I’m always skeptical about how mental illness is portrayed in media, as I often find it inaccurate, overdramatic or sometimes understated. A bad representation matters. It creates misconceptions which lead to stigma. Fortunately, the creators of 13 Reasons Why managed to get mental illness just right.
The Netflix adaptation of 13 Reasons Why, inspired by Jay Asher’s 2007 young-adult novel, follows the life of Clay Jensen and his high school classmates as they deal with their peer, Hannah Baker’s, suicide. Select members of Hannah’s class find themselves with a set of cassette tapes detailing her reasoning for the suicide, and ultimately, telling her full story in her own voice, though she’s left it all behind.
I can't be the only one who's binge-watched the second season of 13 Reasons Why and had low expectations for the release of another season of a show that couldn't seem to have more to it. The season ends with characters Clay, Tony, and Skye driving away in Tony’s car. Clay refuses to listen to Hannah’s tapes again and asks to put on the radio. The final minutes suggest a definite sense of closure.
When I found out that a second season would be released, I was certain that the show would turn into a teenage melodrama with too many plot twists and unnecessary surprises. The tale was short and seemed to have a final ending, yet there is more to the story. Season one is about the tapes, the reasons. Season two is about the aftermath. And it gets real.
Does 13 Reasons Why glorify mental illness? Does it send the wrong message? Could it backfire and potentially turn dangerous if younger people watch it? If there was a slight chance that could happen in the first part of the show, it can't happen at the second one.
Watching Hannah's story we see that an illness like depression is sneaky. It sort of lives along hidden with you, darkening your everyday life. Many times, other people around you don't necessarily notice it. The red flags it sends out are often discrete, but the more we are exposed to them and to the nature of such a condition, the easier it is to recognize it.
In the second season, instead of each episode having the tape of each person who is held accountable for Hannah’s suicide (according to her,) for each episode, we have a witness testifying in the trial between Hannah’s parents and the school district. The Bakers have filed a case against the school district blaming them for not taking action against bullying. In their view, bullying was the reason for their daughter taking her life.
Interestingly, by watching the witnesses and the trial, we get to see more than Hannah's own account of her story. We learn that Zach and Hannah were seeing each other during her last summer and things were great. The second season showed what was going in her own head and what was actually happening, which made her experience come alive more holistically. Hannah was going on with her life, without seeming to have a huge problem yet she was not feeling well.
That’s where the depiction was effective. Ultimately, we understand that she is ill, that she needs help, and whether she asked for it, got it, or didn't is irrelevant. What's relevant is that we have a depiction of mental illness in art that is realistic.
Season two isn't only about Hannah. We see Hannah’s classmate, Alex's, immense struggle to live with himself while recovering from his own suicide attempt. His pain is heartbreaking to watch, yet his courage is admirable, if not an inspiration. The best part of this new part of the story is not only that we see the difficulty of recovery but the possibility of it.
It's uncommon to see recovery from mental illness that is actually possible in media. Alex has his ups and downs, sometimes he seems to put in the effort, other times he feels that everyone feels sorry for him. He bursts in anger and is scared of the choices he has made. It' s made clear that his friends and family are there to support him, which is an important part of recovery.
Then we have Skye, Clay's mysterious new girlfriend. She has a manic episode on one of the first episodes of the second season and is ultimately admitted to a mental institution. When Clay visits her, she admits she has bipolar disorder and is working with specialists to find the exact medication she needs. It's great that they show the two sides of illness and recovery, without shying away from depicting the ugly parts and including that she, just like anybody, can get better.
The continuation of the story is about the aftermath of Hannah's choice. It's about her family that is devastated, her friends that are grieving, and everybody having the guilty echo in their minds of “What could I have done to stop this?” The story does not romanticize or glorify a situation. It's fictional, and like every novel, movie, or play, not only must we take it with a grain of salt, but we should allow ourselves to have an experience from which we question, think about, or learn something about our own lives.
All of the people who worked on this project, as they said, wanted to start a conversation. The more we talk about these things, the more we encounter them, even in a fictional setting, the more we understand them. What we must remember from Hannah Baker's story is the importance of asking for help but also the importance of offering it. If it does not save a person's life, I promise you it will change it.
Photos by Marilli Kataki | IG: @salteist / @marillyk