Popular Media Romanticizing Suicide

One of the dominant reasons for adolescent death is suicide. There are many factors that contribute to this fact. Some of these things include stress, mental illnesses, and substance abuse.

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A few Medical Practitioners in Germany observe that the increase of suicide rate in adolescents may be due to suicide depicted in the mass media (Stafford 1). Many adolescents are very impressionable, and are easily influenced by popular media. The Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why is a mystery teen drama based on a book published by Jay Asher in 2007 called 13 Reasons Why. The setting of the plot is a high school where students are mourning the loss of Hannah Baker, the protagonist who commits suicide. Many mental health experts condemn suicide in the mass media because they believe it can direct people in that direction, which could results in copycat suicides. Popular movies and television shows, including 13 Reasons Why, that depict suicide create a contagion effect that leads to an increase in suicide attempts due to vulnerable children romanticizing suicide (Sudak 497-498). The series 13 Reasons Why revolves around Hannah Baker, a girl who commits suicide, and Clay Jensen, a boy who is secretly in love with Hannah. In each episode, Hannah reveals through cassette tape recordings, which she leaves behind for the people who caused her to commit suicide, the horrific incidents that led to her suicide. The series depicts disturbing aspects of the high school including bullying, objectification of women, slut-shaming, violence, and sexual assault to entertain viewers rather than to inform. It is widely argued that real-life illnesses, like depression and suicidal idealization, are being exploited for entertainment rather than for a PSA. Furthermore, the series also stigmatizes people with mental diseases seeking help. For example, in episode 13, Hannah goes to Mr.Potter to talk about her struggles with depression and instead of helping her, the school’s guidance counselor dismisses her rape and essentially victim blames. This heartbreaking scene portrays a negative outlook on professionals which in turn may prevent a vulnerable youth from seeking help. Adolescents are very impressionable, so seeing such a popular figure in the media dismissing rape and victim blaming might hinder real-life victims from reporting rape and/or getting help with depression (Kingston). Educators and mental health experts are concerned that 13 Reasons Why normalizes and glamorizes suicidal behavior. They believe that the normalization and glamorization might lead to copycat behavior (Kingston). The story depicts a romanticized illustration of suicide in which an unpopular girl becomes the center of attention, and a dead person exacts revenge.

In real life, suicide victims do not become the leading figure in a hit television series, nor are most of their stories ever told in such a huge platform that is viewed by millions of people. Most victims are usually forgotten about after a while in their communities. Moreover, suicide victims are not usually able to exact revenge like Hannah is able to in the show through the cassette tape recordings. The show illustrustrates faulty and deceiving outcomes of suicide, which in turn may give its viewers an incentive to attempt suicide. The teen mystery show has a huge influence on adolescents who watch the show, so to depict unrealistic consequences of suicide is harming those who consume it.Furthermore, in Germany, two psychiatric societies and a pediatrics condemned 13 Reasons Why because they believe that the series can trigger copycat suicides among troubled youth. In a joint statement, German Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy (DGKJP) and the German Society for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Psychosomatics and Neurology (DGPPN), both claimed that suicidal crises and suicides has been connected to the show. Germany’s Professional Association of Paediatricians (BVKJ) even called for an immediate cancellation of the show. Josef Kahl, a pediatric cardiologist and a member of BVKJ’s board, believes that because the series shows how suicide can be successfully done, it will influence adolescents contemplating suicide in that direction. Furthermore, in other nations, organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association and Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation have also released statements criticizing the show and its reporting of suicide. These organizations believe that the bullying, rape, drunk driving, slut shaming, and detailed suicide, harm the adolescents with affective disorders. Furthermore, the series is also criticized because it romanticized suicide after Hannah’s death. Her locker in the high school turns into a shrine and her status among her peers elevated after her death (Stafford 1). This has an negative effect on society because adolescents with mental disorders might see suicide as this way of becoming popular and loved among their peers. Impressionable adolescents may believe this because the series shows an average girl who comes into the spotlight and becomes the center of attention after death.

Additionally, 13 Reasons Why was released in March 2017, and within three weeks following, researchers at the San Diego State University in California found that suicide-related searches had increased about 19%, which is around a million more searches than normal. This is a concern because John Ayres, a professor of public health at San Diego State University, stated that previous research shows that suicide searches and suicide attempts are correlated. Some of the searches researchers found an increase in include how to commit suicide, and “how to kill yourself. Following the release of the show, many school psychologists and teachers had to send home warnings regarding the suicide scene in 13 Reasons Why, where the character slices her arms with a blade. According to the study in the Journal of American Medicine, the three-minute sequence, which shows Hannah Baker committing suicide, may have led to an increase in suicide rates. Evidence shows that an increase in searches regarding suicide leads to an increase in suicide idealization, and/or suicide attempts because the television series romanticizing Hannah’s suicide (Ahsan). Furthermore, 13 Reasons Why is condemned by many mental health organizations due to the show violating media guidelines for suicide reporting while depicting Hannah Baker’s death (Arendt 1). Suicide is rarely ever shown in the mass media because it can trigger someone to attempt suicide (Ahsan). The show has been accused of romanticizing suicide and is said to trigger self-harm. A study published in the National Center of Biotechnology Information found that portrayal of suicide in movie leads to an increase in suicidal crisis. Notably, following the release of the 1980s German television programme, Tod eines Sch??lers (Death of a Student), a series that depicted a railway suicide of 19-year-old man, there was a significant increase of suicide attempts among boys between the age of fifteen and twenty-nine (Arendt 1).This just goes to say that suicide in the media leads to susceptible adolescents idealizing suicide and attempting it. Media outlets need to be aware of how they are depicting suicide because it can have negative effect on its viewers like how the German men and boys were after the release of this television series. Mental health experts are calling to create a better media guidelines while depicting suicide so fewer vulnerable kids are directly affected not only by 13 Reasons Why, but also other media outlets that report suicide (Arendt 1). The way suicide is illustrated in media has a huge effect on society because it may result in copycats suicides. Research done over the years shows that the way we communicate about suicide has tremendous effects on suicide rates. Better guidelines regarding suicide reporting have been reported to show a decrease in copycat suicides. It has been noted that good reports regarding suicide acknowledges mental illnesses and states that it is treatable instead of romanticizing the idea of suicide by insinuating that someone’s suicide is justified. In order to prevent additional suicides, mental health professionals need to be educated on contagion effect of media reporting and the media has to be effectively reporting suicide to its audience (Sudak 497-498).

Psychotherapists and counselors want a regulation on the way suicide is depicted in films and television because they believe it might increase risk behaviors in children. However, some experts argue that 13 Reasons Why calls on its viewers to reflect on the modern day phenomenon, which is social media, and all problem that it creates. Social media is used by many to bully and shame, and it can be claimed that the show opens a dialogue about mental illness rather than telling the viewer to sympathize with Hannah Baker, the suicidal character in the show. However, this argument is faulty because even though the series does open up a conversation about suicide, it does a bad job of condemning suicide. Conversely, the show could have triggered someone to attempt suicide after having the graphic suicide scene (Stafford 1). Additionally, the show also romanticizes suicide by showing an unpopular dead person in the spotlight, and revenge after death (Kingston). Obviously, it is crucial for children to understand mental health, but it needs to be taught properly. The government needs to invest more in mental health services for young children, and properly create awareness about suicide and self-harm in schools so adolescents are able to learn about it efficiently (Scalvini 1). Nic Sheff, one of writers of 13 Reasons Why, argues in a Vanity Fair article the reasons for suicide being depicted with much detail and accuracy in the show. In the article, Sheff discusses his struggles with sobriety and mental illness. He shares in heartbreaking details about the time when he almost attempted suicide after feeling lost and destroyed, but stopping after remembering a story about a woman’s suicide attempt he had heard in a rehab facility. The woman took copious amounts of pills and wine, and went to sleep. After a hour, she woke up in a total black out and ran face-first into a glass door while projectile vomiting blood and bodily fluids. The incident left her unconscious with a broken her arm and scarred her face. The next morning, she woke up to excruciating pain and she had to crawl to the phone and call 911. Sheff, who almost also took copious amount of pills to commit suicide, remembered this incident right as he reached his breaking point. This story reminded him that suicide is painful. It is not peaceful or painless, but instead it is violent and unbearable. This memory of this story stopped him from committing suicide and instead saved his life. He believes the same thing is being done with the protagonist’s graphic suicide in 13 Reasons Why. He wanted to dispel the myth that suicide is the quiet drifting, and instead wanted the shows viewers to face the harsh reality of what death really looks like. Sheff believes that the disturbing scene in which Hannah slices her arms will stop others from following the same route like he was able to stop himself from attempting suicide after remembering the woman’s story he had heard once (Sheff).

Even though Nic Sheff’s narration of his almost suicide attempt is very heartbreaking and impactful, his belief that graphic suicide scenes in 13 Reasons Why decreases suicides is inaccurate. Studies shows that suicide in the media leads to suicide idealization and suicide attempts. Sheff’s experience with hearing about the woman’s suicide attempt is very different than to those who watch the series because Hannah Baker is successful attempting suicide, whilst the woman was not. Furthermore, Sheff also did not see the woman in the same light viewers are able to see Hannah, because they can see exactly what led to her to her suicide and the repercussions people around her faced after her death. Some might get encouraged to attempt suicide for attention after seeing Hannah’s popularity after her death instead of getting discoursed by the graphic and painful suicide of the protagonist. Questions regarding censorship, regulations, and guidelines are very important. Many mental health experts question if we should ban Romeo and Juliet because of the deaths in the play (Scalvini). However, some experts debate that the effects of the play are not sufficient enough to lead to others to attempt suicide even though both the main characters commit suicide. This being said, they also argue that 13 Reasons Why might not led others to attempt suicide because it is a work of fiction (Scalvini). However, this argument is flawed because the play sets in the Victorian Era, which is much different than the Modern Era in which the Netflix series sets. The Modern Era is more relatable to adolescents, and thus adolescents are more likely to be influenced by the series and that ideas that it’s illustrating. For example, the twenty, or so, percent adolescents who are bullied during each school year are going to related more with Hannah dealing with being bullied by her classmates compared relating with Juliet and her inability to marry Romeo. In Canada, the second highest cause of teenage death is suicide. Suicidal ideation in teens has been reported to come from online discussion forums and television news. Moreover, in 2012, a 15-year old Canadian, Amanda Todd, posted a video on YouTube depicting her struggles with bullying, suicide, and self-harm that went viral after her death. Research shows that there was no significant increase in suicide-related emergency visits in Ontario around the time of her death, suggesting that there is no direct correlation between popularized suicide and copycat suicides (Poonai E462).

Therefore, Poonai and other writers of the Canadian Journal of Public Health believe that social media is a great tool to teach adolescents about mental health and personal stigma because it does not directly led someone to attempt suicide. However, this study is flawed because it only takes actual evidence from that specific area, which is Ontario, Canada. The video has been watched by millions of people all around the world, and it could have been affected those in a different part of the world differently compared to the adolescents in Ontario. This research can not sufficiently proof everyone who watched the video regarding bullying and suicide did not attempt suicide after watching the Youtube video. Research shows that people express alarm when the media coverage of a case ends in tragedy. Most say that they are alarmed about the increase in bullying and are in support of the legislation that holds bullies accountable (Pickel 89). However, further research shows that when socially outcasted kids are the victims, they are usually blamed for making themselves targets and are said to deserve the harm they suffered (Pickel 98). This is similar to the investigation results regarding slut-shaming from 142 U.S. colleges, in which it was concluded that an individual who presents themselves sexually is like to get less sympathy for any harm caused to them by others. It is statistically shown that victims who portray themselves sexually are going to receive less support from others, and might be even blamed for the harm done to them (Pickel 98).

This just goes to show that slut-shaming behavior is alive in the American society today, and this behavior can clearly be seen in 13 Reasons Why, where Hannah Baker is slut-shamed. It can be inferred that the slut-shaming and victim blaming Hannah Baker went through in 13 Reasons Why is very common among peers her age. Adolescents who have been bullied and raped, like Hannah in the series, might see suicide as an outlet to free themselves from the condemnations of others after watching the show. The show romanticizes suicide because it shows Hannah getting revenge after death on those who have wronged her (Stafford 1). This creates an unrealistic appeal to those who have been wronged and were denied justice. Furthermore, the show also creates an unrealistic appeal by illustrating a person who commits suicide becoming popular among their peers after death (Kingston). This may also lead others who feel invisible to romanticize suicide because the show illustrates an unpopular girl who becomes widely known after her death.Two California families blames 13 Reasons Why for the death of two teenagers, who committed suicide days after watching the show last April, which was a month after the release of the show. Priscilla Chui, one of two victims, struggled in school and battled with depression. Peter Chui, the victim’s uncle, explained in an interview with KTVU-TV that he believes that the show illustrates one direction one might take to escape cyberbullying and other issues. Moreover, he also explained that the show can be a trigger for a percent of young adults. Bella Herndon, the other victim, also had battled with depression in middle school after being bullied. She was a straight-A student, who seemed to be doing better weeks before her suicide. John Herndon, the victim’s father, has been pleading with Netflix not to release the second season of the show. He also explained how he believes that the show is doing the wrong thing by making money off of the misery of others.

After hearing about the tragic incidents, Netflix released a statement to KTVU-TV expressing their condolences. They explained in the statement that they have taken extra precaution to alert the viewers about content in the show after hearing the concerns of parents, teens, schools and mental health advocates. Furthermore, they also explained that they have created a website that allows viewers to find mental health resources locally (Musumeci). However, the victim’s parents do not think that this is enough to stop negatively influencing adolescents who are susceptible because most of them will continue to watch the show, disregarding the warnings. Mass media platforms, like 13 Reasons Why, need to be aware of how they are reporting suicide because it can create a contagion effect that leads to an increase in suicide attempts among adolescents with mental illness that believe suicide is the only way for things to get better in their lives (Sudak 497-498). Creating false pretences in which a dead person exacts revenge and becomes popular after death is not the way to decrease suicide idealization. Good suicide reportings explicitly condemn suicide and acknowledge mental illness for the cause of suicide (Sudak 497-498). Even though, research published in the National Center of Biotechnology Information found that suicide in the media increases resilience in viewers that helps them cope with suicidal thoughts, it does not stop suicidal crisis (Arendt 1). Suicide reporting in the mass media is hazardous for impressionable who might romanticize suicide that is being depicted. Better warnings and guidelines for suicide reporting is the only way to sustain suicide idealization.

Works Cited

Ahsan, Sadaf. “Arts Impressionable; did 13 Reasons Why Lead to a Rise in Suicide Rates?” National Post, Aug 05, 2017, ProQuest, https://services.lib.mtu.edu:5003/docview/1926281270?accountid=28041. Accessed 14 Mar. 2018. Arendt, Florian, et al. “Suicide on TV: Minimising the Risk to Vulnerable Viewers.BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online), vol. 358, 2017, ProQuest, https://services.lib.mtu.edu:5003/docview/1931542277?accountid=28041, doi:http://services.lib.mtu.edu:2080/10.1136/bmj.j3876. Accessed 14 Mar. 2018.Kingston, Anne. “The Real Taboo in 13 Reasons Why.” Maclean’s, Jun 01, 2017, ProQuest, https://services.lib.mtu.edu:5003/docview/1917399243?accountid=28041. Accessed 14 Mar. 2018. Musumeci, Natalie. Families Blame ’13 Reasons Why’ for Teen Daughters’ Suicides. New York Post, New York Post, 27 June 2017, nypost.com/2017/06/27/families-blame-13-reasons-why-for-teen-daughters-suicides/. Accessed 8 April 2018.Pickel, Kerri L., and Rachel H. Gentry. “Slut Shaming in a School Bullying Case:Evaluators Ignore Level of Harm when the Victim Self-Presents as Sexually Available.” Sex Roles, vol. 76, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 89-98, ProQuest, https://services.lib.mtu.edu:5003/docview/1856102484?accountid=28041, doi:http://services.lib.mtu.edu:2080/10.1007/s11199-016-0662-6. Accessed 14 Mar. 2018.Poonai, Naveen, M.D., et al. “The Association of Exposure to Suicide-Related Internet Content and Emergency Department Visits in Children: A Population-Based Time Series Analysis.” Canadian Journal of Public Health, vol. 108, no. 5, 2017, pp. E462-E467, ProQuest, https://services.lib.mtu.edu:5003/docview/1991564121?accountid=28041, doi:http://services.lib.mtu.edu:2080/10.17269/CJPH.108.6079. Accessed 14 Mar. 2018.Sheff, Nic. 13 Reasons Why Writer: Why We Didn’t Shy Away from Hannah’s Suicide. HWD, Vanity Fair, 20 Apr. 2017, www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/04/13-reasons-Why-suicide-controversy-nic-sheff-writer. Accessed 8 April 2018.Stafford, Ned. “German Doctors Condemn Internet TV Series Depicting Teenage Suicide.” BMJ : British Medical Journal (Online), vol. 358, 2017, ProQuest, https://services.lib.mtu.edu:5003/docview/1917815726?accountid=28041, doi:http://services.lib.mtu.edu:2080/10.1136/bmj.j3367. Accessed 14 Mar. 2018. Sudak, Howard S., and Donna M. Sudak. “The Media and Suicide.”Academic Psychiatry, vol. 29, no. 5, 2005, pp. 495-9, ProQuest, https://services.lib.mtu.edu:5003/docview/196510515?accountid=28041. Accessed 16 Mar. 2018.The NCES Fast Facts Tool Provides Quick Answers to Many Education Questions (National Center for Education Statistics). National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=719. Accessed 9 April 2018Vanorman, Alicia, and Beth Jarosz. Suicide Replaces Homicide as Second-Leading Cause of Death Among U.S. Teenagers. Population Reference Bureau, PRB, 9 June 2016, www.prb.org/suicide-replaces-homicide-second-leading-cause-death-among-us-teens/. Accessed 4 April 2018.

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