Trigger Warning: The article discusses in explicit detail suicide, bullying, mental health, and depression.
Spoiler Warning for Thirteen Reasons Why and Backlash
In recent years, discussions around mental health issues have become less stigmatized. Many media outlets, books, tv shows, and movies have been boldly presenting this topic in a more open and accepting manner. In such times it becomes important to analyze which stories and narratives are positively contributing to the discussion and which are harming not just public perception of mental health but also negatively influencing the people suffering from these issues.
Thirteen Reasons Why is a well-known book written by author Jay Asher which was later also developed into a Netflix series. It tells the story of a young girl who commits suicide and leaves behind a series of thirteen tapes detailing the reasons and blaming certain people due to which she made the decision to kill herself.
Backlash by Sarah Darer Littman is a relatively less popular book that follows the story of a young girl named Lara who tries to kill herself after she is bullied online and how she deals with the aftermath of her failed suicide attempt.
Thirteen Reasons Why, in my opinion, does a horrible job at potraying very sensitive issues of teen suicide and bullying that often leaves me wondering why on Earth is such a problematic book so popular in the first place. And while Backlash is also not without its faults, I still believe that it portrays the issues realistically and with more depth and empathy.
Here is a comparative analysis between the two stories and how they differ in their portrayal of mental illness -
1) Difference between a realistic and unrealistic depiction
Hannah, the protagonist of Thirteen Reasons Why directly points fingers at different people blaming them for her state of my mind and chronologically lists her fall into depression and suicide, but in reality, it's not that simple. No person can ever clearly list out their reasons for having suicidal thoughts. For most people, depression is like falling down a rabbit hole wherein they have no idea how they ever entered this hole, and they can never look at one person and blame them for throwing them down the rabbit hole. The rabbit hole slowly turns into a black hole wherein they are sucked into a vortex of unimaginable pain and self-loathing that renders them incapable of being able to outline definite causes or reasons.
And Backlash acknowledges this fact. Lara had previously been bullied for being overweight and she had received certain professional help due to which she was doing a little better for a while. But when she is again bullied online, she does not go around blaming her previous or current bullies or can even recall elaborate reasons behind her feelings. She simply accepts all the mean comments and relapses into her old state of mind, and in the spur of the moment, she tries to take her life.
2) Romanticization and Glorification VS Awareness and Prevention
Thirteen Reasons Why does not raise awareness against suicide, rather it presents a revenge fantasy of a sad bullied girl. While I am sure that was not the author's intention, it does not change the fact that - Hannah’s story is not presented as a cautionary tale against suicide rather she is presented as a glorious hero who sets out an elaborate revenge plan to deliver justice to her bullies. Nothing good can ever come out of a person committing suicide, but the story does not acknowledge that and, in fact, her decision to end her life in a twisted way is rewarded by the story's narrative. A peeping tom is caught, a rapist is exposed, and another depressed person might now actually receive help. All these things might make the readers feel a sense of accomplishment which is not what a story like this should be aiming for.
People are already scared of seeking help and going for counseling, but the story still goes and makes a guidance counselor a villain, and that is so irresponsible. What message was the story trying to deliver? Don't go around seeking help because authority figures are always going to invalidate you and your struggles? And while I am well aware that such things happen in real life, but such stories need to find a balance between portraying the reality and struggles honestly while not sending out a message that might make people turn against going to therapy even further.
In comparison, Backlash makes the main character Lara take accountability for her actions. Her story does not end after she tries to kill herself, rather her story starts after her failed suicide attempt. Lara has to actively make efforts to try to heal again and move on from her past. Her story is a tale of hope that conveys to its readers that no matter how badly you are struggling in life, suicide is never the answer. As we see Lara struggle and get back on her feet, it fills the audience with a sense of hope - that while recovery is not easy, it is still possible.
And that is exactly the kind of story a person struggling with mental health issues needs to read - not the kind that will make them want to kill themselves even more but the kind that will make them believe that there is a future beyond and ahead of their worst nightmares and pain.
This article will be continued next week.
If you or someone you know is suicidal then reach out at then refer to this link to contact a suicide helpline in your country - https://www.opencounseling.com/suicide-hotlines
is a young writer from India who is currently pursuing Mass Media. Apart from reading and writing, she spends most of her time daydreaming and listening to music. You can find her on Instagram at @aastha.1703