Author Archives: Rachel Lee

From Heathers to 13 Reasons Why: Romanticizing Suicide

The 1998 film Heathers follows the life of Veronica Sawyer, the witty and contemplative protagonist who is disillusioned with the shallowness of high school and her ultra-popular, conventionally beautiful, and wealthy friends: the “Heathers.” The film became a cult classic for its use of sardonic, dark humor to illuminate issues of teen-bullying, sexual violence, and apathy.  Heathers was certainly subversive for its time, but concerningly enough, still provides relevant commentary on society today, particularly with media portrayal of suicide.

In the movie, following the “suicides” of several students in the school, Ms. Fleming, the school’s guidance counselor, gathers the student body in an assembly to publically mourn and express their feelings while local news reporters broadcast the event.  It’s a thinly veiled exploitation of the emotional vulnerability of the students and of the tragedy itself, and Veronica doesn’t hold back on pointing it out:

“These little programs are eating up suicide up with a spoon.  They’re making it sound like it’s a cool thing to do!”

Twenty years later, it seems that Veronica’s important criticism has still fallen on deaf ears: mental illness and suicide continues to be romanticized in the media.  One such example is Netflix’s show Thirteen Reasons Why, which, as the title states, details the protagonist’s “reasons why” she committed suicide through a series of tapes she recorded before ending her life.  The show has been criticized in many aspects: it overlooks the sensitive nuances of mental health and simplifies Hannah’s suicide as a consequence of the actions of 13 people.  It fails to show viewers that therapy and/or medication can be extremely helpful and successful.  Most disturbingly, it shows the graphic scene of Hannah killing herself.  The viewer see everything: the cuts she makes, the agony she is in, and the blood.  Lots of blood.

Because it is well known that media portrayal of suicide has a strong influence in the public psyche, details guidelines on how to carefully discuss suicide.  It is emphasized to not describe the suicide method and to not glamorize the suicide, both of which 13 Reasons Why blatantly does.  Some have gone as far to say that 13 Reasons is a “suicide revenge fantasy,” in which Hannah gets to live on through her tapes and make her tormenters fully face the guilt and consequences of their actions.  What the show doesn’t show: weeks or months later, when the school moves on and forgets, and Hannah is still gone.  The devastating consequences it will have on her family and close friends for years and years.  The alternative life where she received proper professional help and slowly moved past feeling defined by her trauma.

Does this mean that we should completely refrain from discussing suicide?  Certainly not – Selena Gomez, co-producer of 13 Reasons, may have had the right intentions with raising awareness about suicide and mental health, but failing to consult mental health professionals resulted in a dangerous show that is far from a model of how to thoughtfully address mental health.  With that said, shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend and Bojack Horseman are breaking ground with much more nuanced and honest depictions of mental illness; Crazy Ex Girlfriend displays therapy in a positive light while also exploring the mundane and difficult work that comes with addressing mental illness (and also handles a suicide attempt in a very non-sensationalized manner).  Bojack Horseman doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that wraps around the protagonist’s depression, self-loathing, and self-destructive decisions, while still portraying him as a painfully sympathetic character.  While these shows are certainly not perfect (and sometimes walk a fine line between provocative and problematic), I hope that future producers and directors look to them, and not shows like 13 Reasons, when tackling mental health and suicide in TV and film.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

Emory Resources:

Student Counseling Center (mental health concerns): 404-727-7450

Respect Program Hotline (24/7 sexual/interpersonal violence support): 470-270-5360

A History of Poppies, War, and Death


The opium poppy, effortlessly sprouting across several continents, has captured the attention of humankind for thousands of years.  Likely due to its sedative effects, the ubiquitous scarlet flower has consistently been associated with death.  The Greeks depicted Hypnos and Thanatos, the gods of sleep and death, donning crowns of red poppies.  After World War I, millions of people began to line their pockets with the same red petals in remembrance of the fallen soldiers.  Today in the US, the flower reminds us an alarming epidemic, claiming thousands of lives each year: the opioid crisis.  But before that, another opiate crisis loomed large in a different empire: the Qing dynasty.

Throughout the 18th century, Britain facilitated unbalanced trade with China that heavily consisted of opium exports to China; by 1767, Britain was exporting two thousand chests of opium to the country each year.  In 1839, Lin Zexu, the Chinese imperial commissioner, put a foot down on its trade and enacted laws banning the substance from the country.  In a letter to Queen Victoria, Lin Zexu questioned why Britain continued to supply opium to China, considering that it was banned in Britain:

I have heard that you strictly prohibit opium in your own country, indicating unmistakably that you know how harmful opium is. You do not wish opium to harm your own country, but you choose to bring that harm to other countries such as China. Why?

There was no response to the letter.  What followed was two opium wars, eventually forcing China to legalize the importation of opium.  The effects ultimately derailed the country and toppled the Qing Dynasty.

Fast forward to 2018: America is facing a public health emergency, wrangling with the devastating consequences of opioid addiction.  Back in November, President Donald Trump announced that he would discuss with Chinese President Xi Jinping on how to stop the “flood of cheap and deadly” fentanyl “manufactured in China” into the United States.  (Fentanyl is a particularly deadly type of opioid, 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine; large quantities of the substance are reportedly being illegally shipped to the US.) 

The very mechanism that makes opioid highs so euphoric is also what makes them so deadly: once opioids enter the bloodstream, they bind to receptors in the brain, producing effects that block pain and provide relief, but also slow breathing.  Victims of overdose often die from respiratory depression, physically unable to breathe in enough oxygen to keep their organs alive.  Perhaps this is why humankind cannot seem to shake its toxic obsession with the opium poppy, century after century being lulled into the sweet calm it provides, only be led into a tortured death by addiction.  One thing is for certain: the United States must take urgent action to address the epidemic, lest we see the fall of another empire.


“Lin Zexu: Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839.” Longman World History,

Maron, Dina Fine. “How Opioids Kill.” Scientific American, 8 Jan. 2018,

“Opium Throughout History.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,

Pletcher, Kenneth. “Opium Wars.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 9 Mar. 2017,

Wee, Sui-lee, and Javier C. Hernandez. “Despite Trumps Pleas, Chinas Online Opioid Bazaar Is Booming.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Nov. 2017,