“Should suicide be depicted in the media?” Yes, it should; that’s a pretty simple answer to a question that’s so vague and broad that it transcends multiple schools of thoughts, but that isn’t the questions artists and mental health pundits should be asking.
Rather, the question we should be asking speaks more to how suicide should be portrayed in media. The dialogue surrounding mental health has left its little corner of the internet and has become a full-blown conversation that everyone is chiming in on. Mental health is an important topic and should be discussed with trepidation and with more people adding to the overall narrative surrounding mental health, it’s important that facts are being spelled out. With so many voices chiming in, it’s hard for the crux of the conversation to still remain: the betterment of others.
Artists have always channeled the societal concerns of the time within their artwork, and 2017 was no different, with suicide becoming a prominent topic in media. Last year, suicide was as glorified as it was vilified and with the year behind us, it seems like the best time to ruminate on the effects media has had on society’s perception of suicide.
Let’s start with the most culturally relevant show of the past year, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why – a show that depicted the very all-too-real suicide of one Hannah Baker, a high-schooler who was bullied and scrutinized by her fellow peers, prompting her to record 13 tapes and send them out, posthumously, to those who wronged her. The show is sympathetic towards suicide, and greatly showcases how it affects those who lose a loved one. On the surface level, it hits all the checkmarks. So where, then, did it go wrong?
While the show dealt with suicide in a very realistic manner, it was also bogged down by the tropes of the young adult genre. Consequently, a show that had the intentions of a PSA was turned into a reverse-murder-mystery show that treated Hannah’s suicide as a plot device to showcase the inner-workings of a high school: a toxic wasteland of egos clashing and teenage angst.
Now that’s not to say artists shouldn’t be able to use suicide in their narratives – everything is fair game – but a topic so sensitive should be approached with respect and grace. The show goes out of its way to treat Baker’s suicide as one last ‘eff you’ to her bullies, leaving behind 13 tapes that point out how each person’s actions led her to make the decision to kill herself. It’s idealism at its finest, turning a suicide into a sensationalistic fantasy. As audience members, we are bred to root for our heroes, and in this case, we somehow end up rooting for her, which in turn makes us root for her suicide, which may be interesting narratively but is truly morally corrupt.
But perhaps the shows greatest fault is that, while it attempted to address the issue of suicide in a respectful manner, it failed to provide an answer for those in need of help. No adult in this show is rational or aware of Hannah’s attitude and gloomy mood, making her suicide convincingly warranted – especially after she goes to her guidance counselor for help. She shows signs of depression that are frank and honest; they hit all the right notes. Walking in as a last resort, her pleas to stay alive are brushed aside by the very person who should be able to stop her from taking her own life: a guidance counselor, trained to deal with this exact situation. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for Hannah or the audience. Completely engrossed with being as cynical as possible for a teen-drama, the show never shows even a glimmer of hope – for any of the characters. It’s almost ironic that a show obsessed with figuring out how to stop and aid those with depression is depressing on almost every turn. One of the reasons Selena Gomez, one of the show’s producers, signed onto the show was to help audiences and provide an honest viewpoint towards suicide. In a behind-the-scenes documentary for the show, Selena Gomez, mental health professionals, the cast and crew sit down to discuss how important the show is and how it’ll help those in need. In fact, each episode opens with a trigger warning.
One of the show’s biggest faults is that it goes against the World Health Organization’s media guidelines for depicting suicide. Some guidelines that the show went against included showing the suicide in graphic detail including the method, showcasing suicide notes (which in this case were the 13 tapes Hannah left behind, and sensationalizing it.The show also managed to spawn an imitation suicide where a young adult left behind tapes directed towards those who caused him to kill himself. The fact that somebody channeled Hannah’s method of revenge clearly shows how wrong the show is in how it portrays suicide. Moreover, Google searches for “how to commit suicide” increased 26 percent after the show was released.
These reactions to 13 Reasons Why shows just how off the mark its creators were when addressing suicide and how choosing to take your own life impacts those around you. It’s a show that depicts high-school as a wasteland, negativity and chaos at every turn, with characters who are so cruel that they resemble comic-book villains who meet up after her death to foil plans of the tapes leaking, and a main character who attempts to use her suicide as a method of revenge.
So, what’s the appropriate response to a show that is more concerned with exploiting its subject matter than providing an answer to a solution? A song, created for the sole purpose of helping others first, entertaining second.
1-800-273-8255 was rapper Logic’s effort in producing a song to help those in need after being told by countless fans that his music had saved their lives. Realizing how much power and influence he had, Logic attempted to save people using a song that has a truly positive message.
The song details the conversation between an individual who is calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) and the responder he speaks to. The individual details how they feel alone, worthless, and not at all in-tune with themselves. The responder at the NSPL reminds the caller of all the beauty in the world, how there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. The song ends with the caller deciding that they want to continue to live.
It’s an inspired song that feels more like a publicity stunt for the NSPL and in fact, that is precisely the point of the song. Logic wanted to create something that would save lives, and it would be an understatement to say he didn’t.
The day of the song’s release, the NSPL received over 4,573 calls, the second highest number of calls they’ve ever received in one day. After Logic’s performance at the MTV Music Video Awards, calls rose to 5,041 with those numbers being maintained long after the performance. The NSPL also stated that many call centers reported that many callers referred to Logic’s songs as their reason for calling.
For decades, artists have been challenging and discussing the national narratives of their time. It’s up to them to absorb our issues and create something meaningful out of it that we can all benefit from/enjoy. Artists should never be silenced, but they should always be held accountable. An issue like suicide is contentious, but should always be approached cautiously. Art is chaos in motion, but artists aren’t chaotic individuals. Everything they create is planned meticulously, crafted with care, and treated with respect, and the same should be true for the topics they discuss. There has to be a sense of necessity to create something that a viewer can not only appreciate but also respect.
13 Reasons Why was created with the intent to create a sprawling, epic story that meditated on the suicide of a young teenage girl who was a victim of bullying. It was supposed to tell a story that moved people and by all accounts, it did, just not in the way the creators had hoped. It sparked a national conversation, but it also became a part of the problem it was trying to solve.
1-800-273-8255 wasn’t created to entertain or hit the charts; it wasn’t a product, it was a wake-up call for those in need of help. When compared to 13 Reasons Why, Logic’s song doesn’t have the flashy properties of the show such as romanticize suicide or the motivations behind it, but rather depicts the vague emotions felt by those who chose to take their own life.
Audiences and listeners are meant to see themselves in these characters in the best way possible, and Logic’s song did exactly that: being vague enough to let somebody immerse themselves in the caller’s cry for help, but helpful enough that people know exactly what to do when they feel like this.
So, back to that same question: should suicide be depicted in media? The answer is still yes, but it’s not up to audiences to decide that. It’s up to the creators who are choosing to depict it. We should put enough faith in them to do the best they can, because when they stumble, so does the overall conversation.
Written by Aahil Dayani/ Image Sources
Armstrong, Megan. “Logic Tweets National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Statistics Since His ‘1-800’ Release.” Billboard, 16 Nov. 2017, http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/8039094/logic-1-800-273-8255-national-suicide-prevention-lifeline-statistics-tweet.
Vinopal, Lauren. “After Startling Findings, Scientists Call On Netflix To Edit ’13 Reasons Why’.” Fatherly, Fatherly, 27 Aug. 2017, http://www.fatherly.com/health-science/psychology/netflix-13-reasons-why-suicidal-thoughts/.