How ‘13 Reasons Why’ Brings Attention to Invisible Illness

How ‘13 Reasons Why’ Brings Attention to Invisible Illness

A closer look at the new Netflix teen drama series.

A closer look at the new Netflix teen drama series.

Text: Ilana Kaplan

While Netflix series 13 Reasons Why may have initially caught the world’s attention because of its producer, Selena Gomez, the show’s premiere on March 31 captivated viewers because of its sharp depiction of suicide, bullying, sexual abuse and mental illness. The 13-part series chronicles the suicide of the teenage Hannah Baker and the incidents in her brief life that made her spiral out of control. At the beginning of the series, Hannah’s suicide is a shock to the students of her hometown—on the surface it seems that the student body adored her, with various memorials popping up throughout the school. But as Hannah’s story is uncovered by the seven tapes she leaves behind, she was lonelier than anyone possibly could have imagined. The signs were there, but no one really paid attention, or rather, no one really showed empathy. But more importantly, 13 Reasons Why reveals the need to look a little deeper when it comes to a cry for help, which is something that extends to characters beyond Hannah. However, it begins with her.

As one of the show’s protagonists, Hannah is the target of bullying, sexual assault, and abandonment. She’s violated in more ways than one, but her feelings are never really prioritized. Hannah endures slut-shaming thanks to Justin Foley whom she only kissed after his best friend Bryce Walker texts a photo of her upskirt to the entire school, then ends up on a superlatives list for “best ass” thanks to Alex Standall, is sexually assaulted by Marcus Cole, stalked by schoolmate Tyler Down and raped by Bryce. No one asks if she’s okay. People just assume the gossip as truth and brush her aside. As a result, Hannah is left in despair, alone to field the unwanted comments and advances of her fellow students.

When Hannah leaves seven tapes behind, she wants the people who wronged her understand and feel what she was internalizing all along. Everyone who isn’t a student, including Mr. Porter, the guidance counselor, assumes that Hannah has friends. But Hannah’s friendships never last long, with the exceptions of Clay Jensen and Tony Padilla. With Jessica Davis and Alex, their Monet coffee shop hangouts faded after the two began dating and neglect to tell Hannah. Later, she strikes up a friendship with Courtney Crimson when they make a plan to catch Hannah’s stalker. But when Courtney ends up kissing Hannah and gets caught on film by her stalker, Tyler, Courtney wanted nothing to do with Hannah because she didn’t want anyone to find out she’s gay. Hannah later finds an unlikely friendship with pretentious newspaper editor Ryan Shaer, whom she connects with at a poetry group. But he violates her, by publishing a poem (albeit anonymously) in his zine for the student body. In the poem, there are allusions to contemplation of suicide (“I keep finding stones tied to my feet”), but as the work surfaces no one tries to figure out who the troubled individual is that wrote it -- even Hannah’s teacher Mrs. Baker just points out how well-written it is, but doesn’t try to figure out who authored it.

Things really start to spiral for Hannah after she attends a party at Jessica’s house. She and friend/crush Clay finally kiss, but in the moment, Hannah envisions every guy she’s been violated by and breaks down. She tells Clay to leave, but wants him to stay—something she can’t fully communicate. Not only does she witness Bryce rape Jessica that night, while Justin lets it happen, but she ends up being raped by Bryce himself later in the series. In so many ways, Hannah feels silenced. And friends like Clay or Tony, don’t even see the signs of suffering.

Near the end of Hannah’s life, she seeks help from Mr. Porter, the guidance counselor who has invited her to speak with him more than once. She finally takes him up on his request explaining to him that she doesn’t have friends, though he assumes the people who have wronged her are her friends. She cries, opening up to him about being raped in so many words, and he advises her to confront her attacker or move on. All of the signs are there, pointing to someone who needs help. Instead, he doesn’t know how to handle the situation, and in turn, Hannah sees no way out. Mr. Porter should have alerted her parents or set up a meeting with a therapist. When someone turns a blind eye towards an invisible illness like depression when it’s their job to help, they are complicit in what happens next.

While 13 Reasons Why ultimately revolves around Hannah’s suicide, her depression isn’t the only invisible illness we see throughout the show. Alex feels tremendous guilt for making the list that led to more slut-shaming for Hannah. He acts out, starts fights and makes troublesome comments like “if I jump off of a bridge will you die too?” It’s easy for viewers to see parallels between Hannah and Alex as jumps fully clothed into Bryce’s pool. His guilt and grief is public, but brushed aside as him just having an attitude. The same goes for Jessica who becomes a flaky, closet alcoholic until the end of the season, when Clay really steps in to try and help her after piecing together (and accepting) that her boyfriend Justin had allowed Bryce to rape her. At the end of the series, we see Clay reaching out to old friend Skye Miller after seeing beyond her general angst and realizing she’s been cutting herself. He learns the biggest lesson about invisible illnesses, to look beyond himself to help someone else. But even still, Alex’s depression seems to fall off of everyone’s radar, except maybe the viewer.

For people living with invisible illnesses, reaching out for help can be tough. Hannah is a flawed character -- she didn’t do everything she could to stay alive. But she also didn’t think she had the resources to help her. Along the way, she could have sought help more or even consulted a therapist, but people living with invisible illnesses like depression don’t always feel worthy of the help. On the flipside, everyone featured on the tapes could have been less selfish and seen beyond the scope of popularity and self-indulgence to reach out to someone in need. Mental illnesses that aren’t visible to the eye can be seen through picking fights, general angst, cutting, and isolation. If there’s anything you take away from 13 Reasons Why it’s to listen to someone who is reaching out for help. Don’t ignore the signs.

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