Does Portraying Suicide in Popular Media Make Suicide More Popular?

The success of Netflix’s recently released 13 Reasons Why, about a high school student who commits suicide and leaves behind tapes to thirteen people whom she blames, has sparked concern and even outrage amongst mental health experts, parents, and school administrators. Some fear that the glamorization of suicide in the show can have negative consequences, including misrepresenting suicide and mental illness, and influencing viewers struggling with mental illnesses to commit suicide, especially as the show’s primary demographic consists of teenagers. While the weight of research corroborates that suicide can be contagious, some research suggests that the portrayal of suicide in the media can deter suicide. In any event, this show has spurred conversation around how to responsibly depict mental illness in popular media, and how to provide meaningful help to those struggling with mental illness.

The show miscasts suicide in multiple ways. The protagonist Hannah gains power from the tapes she leaves behind after her death. Suicide is portrayed as a voice for the voiceless, a medium for those silenced while they were alive. The show does not sufficiently portray the finality of death, as Hannah continues to live on through her tapes. The show promotes the message that suicide can be used as a way to enact revenge on one’s enemies, while suicide actually hurts that person’s loved ones more than it hurts their enemies. Revenge can be a powerful motivator for young people who contemplate suicide. The show’s portrayal of Hannah’s unlikely success in that regard is unhelpful.

More problematically, the show conveys the message that bullying and sexual assault alone can drive someone to commit suicide, and that other people can be blamed. In reality, biology, psychology, and past history are more significant factors in the causes of suicide. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 90 percent of suicides arise from an underlying mental illness. Immediate stressors may provide the “final straw,” but are not the core of the problem. The series does not identify mental health as factoring into Hannah’s suicide. The show grievously misinforms its audience by neglecting to explore issues of mental illness and by ignoring the various avenues available to treat or control mental illness. There is no model presented for positive health seeking, when trustworthy adults and mental professionals can greatly help lower suicide risk.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention declares that “[e]xposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide” can be a suicide risk factor.[1] The conclusions of this research may be re-emerging from the show. In June, a 25-year old Peruvian man jumped from the top of a building, after leaving behind tapes previously recorded on his computer, as did Hannah did in 13 Reasons Why. Stories are emerging of parents blaming the show for triggering the suicide of their children.[2] These news stories, however, often do not mention whether these young people had previous issues with mental health.

Producer Selena Gomez has defended the show, claiming that it unglamorizes suicide and instead drives important discussion around a taboo subject. Creator Brian Yorkey defended their decision to graphically portray Hannah’s suicide in the last episode of the show, claiming that “we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.” This approach is buttressed by a study conducted in Houston from November 1992 through July 1995 which concluded that exposure to suicide in the media can actually prevent suicide attempts by others.[3]

There have been efforts in the past to limit the publication of suicides in mass media. For example, two centuries ago, a wave of suicide spread across Europe. Many of the suicide victims had read “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Johann von Goethe, a story that includes the suicide of the protagonist. Authorities banned the book throughout Europe in an attempt to stop the contagion. In today’s social milieu, silencing discussion surrounding suicide would be impractical and indeed harmful. There is potential for productive conversation to emerge from the show.

This draws on a wider issue in the portrayal of mental health and suicide: silence and stigma can be destructive. Many young people suffer with mental illness alone, and without increased conversation surrounding the different ways to receive help, many will continue to suffer. Mental illness encompasses a broad spectrum of diagnoses, which are treatable to varying degrees, and stigmatizing those suffering with mental illness creates real obstacles for those who might seek help. Increased conversation, even if caused by the show rather than within the show, may mitigate the stigma surrounding mental health, and could lead to an increased awareness amongst the public about the combination of biological, social, or psychological factors that can contribute to suicide.

Though the show sheds light on important issues such as bullying and sexual assault, and encourages teenagers to consider how their actions affect others, 13 Reasons Why neglects or misrepresents some of the nuanced factors of mental illness and suicide, which could prejudice viewers or the discussion surrounding suicide. Responding to critics, the show added a disclaimer at the beginning of some episodes with contact information for a crisis center, but this is not enough. As 13 Reasons Why gears up to film their second season, the creators and producers should consider how they can better portray mental health crises, and should more carefully reflect upon the profound responsibility they – and we – have to help those struggling with mental illness.

This debate over the depiction of suicide in 13 Reasons Why merely scratches the surface of conversation surrounding mental health and the related stigma. Perhaps a better show will offer a more accurate picture of how biological and social factors contribute to suicide contagion, and what can be done to prevent suicide.

 

 

[1] https://afsp.org/about-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs/

[2] http://www.foxnews.com/health/2017/06/27/families-blame-13-reasons-why-for-2-teens-suicides.html

[3] “Mercy, James A., et al. “Is suicide contagious? A study of the relation between exposure to the suicidal behavior of others and nearly lethal suicide attempts.” American journal of epidemiology 154.2 (2001): 120-127.”

 


About Rachel Linfield

Rachel Linfield is an intern at the Montefiore-Einstein Center for Bioethics. She is a rising junior and pre-med student at Princeton University, and is pursuing a major in the History of Science.

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