The Era Of Trigger Warnings: How ‘13 Reasons Why’ And ‘Sharp Objects’ Talk About Mental Health, Responsibly

Shows on the likes of Netflix and HBO couple trigger warnings and social responsibility with entertainment exploring mental health issues.

TV shows like Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” and HBO’s latest premiere “Sharp Objects” are shining a light on tricky topics like self harm and suicide, setting a precedent on how entertainment can portray such sensitive topics in a socially responsible way.

Since its premiere last March, “13 Reasons Why” has been surrounded by criticism and controversy. Based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel “Thirteen Reasons Why,” the story takes place two weeks after high school student Hannah Baker commits suicide and leaves behind 13 cassette tapes detailing thirteen reasons why she took her own life.

Some critics have argued that the series glamorizes mental health problems and suicide, and the show received even more criticism after the release of the finale episode of its first season, which included a graphic sexual assault scene. Some school districts have even banned the book from their libraries, while a number of other districts have sent letters home to parents warning them about the Netflix series.

Since premiering on July 8, HBO’s dark mystery series “Sharp Objects” has not been met with the same kind of criticism, likely because the show is centered around adult characters. But similar to “13 Reasons Why,” HBO’s latest offering does touch on its own fair share of sensitive topics, including substance abuse and self harm.

The final scene in the series’ premiere episode reveals that the show’s main character, Camille Preaker, has a history of self harm, and has covered her body in cuts and words that she has carved into her skin.

At the conclusion of the first episode of “Sharp Objects,” HBO included an end card guiding viewers on how they can get help for similar issues. The network took their efforts a step further by including an extensive list of resources available in the U.S. and 14 other countries on the show’s HBO home page.

In an age where trigger warnings are becoming commonplace, preparing their viewers of any potentially disturbing content — and caring for them in the aftermath — is a responsibility that more and more networks appear to be taking seriously. While the first season of “13 Reasons Why” did include content warnings, the network stepped their efforts up a notch in for the series’ second season, and began airing a warning video prior to each episode. The video features four of the show’s cast members, who inform the audience that the show is a “fictional series that tackles tough, real world issues, taking a look at sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide and more.”

“By shedding a light on these difficult topics, we hope our show can help viewers start a conversation. But if you struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you, or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult,” their message continues, before instructing viewers where they can find help.

The show’s website, 13reasonswhy.info, lists numerous resources for those struggling with depression, anxiety, bullying, suicidal thoughts, and a host of other issues.

Alongside season 2, Netflix also premiered a “13 Reasons Why” aftershow called “Behind the Reasons,” which features cast members and producers discussing the heavy themes in each episode with mental health professionals. Prior to the release of season 2, SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) gathered 75 experts in the fields of mental health, education, and suicide prevention to create the “13 Reasons Why” Toolkit, an additional educational resource for young fans of the show as well as parents and educators intended to encourage healthy conversations about the topics discussed in the show.

Making sure that viewers have access to trigger warnings when it comes to shows that deal with sensitive topics is a mission that some fans online have taken on themselves. Twitter user @lovesickpalaces compiled a comprehensive list of trigger warnings for season two of “13 Reasons Why,” detailing every potentially triggering scene and including timestamps of those specific scenes so that viewers can more easily avoid them.

Similarly, the Tumblr blog “This Could Be Triggering” collects user submissions detailing potentially triggering scenes in a variety of films, TV shows, music, and books.

There is help available for those struggling with self harm, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Free and confidential support can be found by contacting the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

[Photo: Katherine Langford, Derek Luke, Dylan Minnette, Alisha Boe, Miles Heizer and Brian Yorkey attend #NETFLIXFYSEE Event For '13 Reasons Why' Season 2 on June 1, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. By Presley Ann/Getty Images]

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