“Thirteen Reasons Why”: A Reading Guide for Mental Health

On the eve of April Fools, Netflix released a new original series adapting Jay Asher’s bestselling novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which deals with topics that are no laughing matter. The story follows Clay Jensen as he listens to 13 audiotapes sent from Hannah Baker, Clay’s classmate who committed suicide and wants each person who played a part in her decision to know how what they did led her to this decision. Cruel jokes have crueler consequences.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a wonderful book. The unique convention of a story told primarily through audiotapes makes the writing snappy (Hannah has a wry sense of humor). Hearing Hannah’s cassettes narrated when listening to the audiobook is downright haunting. There’s tons of suspense — Who’s discussed on the next tape? What could they have done? — and it’s a provocative take on how our small, quiet, everyday actions affect the lives of others.

The Netflix adaptation ratchets up the mystery aspects quite a bit, spending more time with Clay as he interacts with the other classmates Hannah has identified on the tapes. There are plenty of other significant differences, too, especially regarding the use of technology. Where Asher purposefully avoids getting into the complexities more modern technologies have on communication, the Netflix series revels in showing how a text can ruin your life. In many ways, the show breathes new life into the original story with these more modern depictions of teen life a decade after the publication of the book. 

Thirteen Reasons Why

It’s great that the adaptation is calling attention to this important and bestselling book once again. Both the book and the TV series examine bullying and suicide with the gravitas deserved for such heavy subjects. Asher, however, admits in the tenth anniversary edition of the book that he’s no expert on these issues — he’s just an astute observer of human behavior and a cutting storyteller.

That’s why, as you read the book or watch the series over National Public Health Week (April 3 - 7), we recommend also reading up on mental health from actual experts so you have a toolkit to discuss depression. When exploring health issues, mental health problems often gets overlooked, since they’re harder to diagnose. But suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, so it’s important to know how to identify, address, and cope with mental health issues.

Here are some books on mental illnesses and grief to read over National Public Health Week:

On Depression:

The Noonday Demon

This tome takes you through the history of depression across countries, and it includes anecdotes, both personal and professional, about the illness. The Noonday Demon is an expansive, encompassing, and highly readable and well-researched work that won the National Book Award.

On Suicide:

How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me

After surviving multiple suicide attempts, Susan Blauner wrote this memoir as a practical guide to overcoming suicidal thoughts. How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me contains tons of practical and actionable advice for anyone who has thoughts of taking their own life, or for anyone who knows someone who’s struggling with those thoughts.

On Grief:

On Grief and Grieving

The cyclical nature of trauma is one of the central themes of Thirteen Reasons Why — Hannah’s suicide, in turn, makes Clay sad, angry, and depressive (especially in the Netflix series). With death such an integral part of life, it’s vital to learn how to properly grieve so that you don’t fall into depression. On Grief and Grieving is one of the greatest books on the subjects, from grief counselor and writer of On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

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