Yes, it should; that’s a pretty simple answer to a question that’s so vague and broad that transcends multiple schools of thoughts, but that isn’t the questions artists and mental health pundits should be asking.
The question isn’t if suicide shouldn’t be depicted in media, but rather how is it being 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.
Artists have always channeled social anxieties 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 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 highschooler who was bullied and scrutinied by her fellow peers, which led her to record 13 tapes and send them out posthumously to those who wronged her. While the show dealt with suicide in a very realistic manner, it was also bogged down by the tropes of the genre – turning a show that had the intentions of a PSA into a reverse-murder-mystery show that treated Hannah’s suicide as a plot device to showcase the inner-workings of a high school as 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 treated 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 why each person made her kill herself. It’s idealism at its finest, turning a suicide into a sensationalistic fantasy. As audience members, we’re 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.
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 did it go wrong?
It didn’t provide an answer for those in need of help.
Hannah Baker’s suicide is 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: a guidance counselor; somebody trained to deal with this exact situation. No adult in this show is rational or self-aware to Hannah’s attitude and gloomy mood. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for Hannah or the audience. Completly engrossed with being as cynical as possible for a teen-drama, the show never shows even a glimmer of hope – for anyone in the show. 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.
It’s no surprise that the show completely goes against the World Health Organization’s media guidelines for preventing suicide, which makes complete sense, considering the show launched 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 about portraying suicide. Beyond that, Google searches for “how to commit suicide” increased 26 percent after the show was released.
13 Reasons Why shows how off the mark its creators were when discussing suicide and how it impacts those around you. It’s a show that depicts high-school as a wasteland, with negativity and chaos at every turn, with characters who are so cruel that they resemble comic-book villains more than students, and a main character who attempts to use her suicide as a method of revenge, instead of trying to come to terms with her inner issues.
So, what’s the answer to a show that is more concerned with exploiting its subject matter than providing an answer to a solution? A song that was created for the sole purpose of helping others first, entertaining second.
1-800-273-8255 was rapper Logic’s effort in creating 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 create a song that was meant to save people and have a positive message.
The song details the conversation between an individual who is calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the responder he speaks to. The individual details how they feel alone, worthless, and not feeling 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 but no one can deny that that’s what the point of the song is. 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 songs, the second highest number of calls they’ve ever received. After Logic’s performance at the MTV Music Video Awards, calls rose to 5,041 with those numbers maintaining after the performance. The NSPL also stated that many call centers reported that many callers referred to Logic’s songs as the reason they called.
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 bask in. Artists should never be silenced, but they should always be held accountable. An issue like suicide is contentious, but should always be handled with some sort of trepidation. Art is chaos in motion, but artists aren’t chaotic individuals. Everything they create is planned meticulously, crafted with care, and treated with respect. The same should also go with the topics they discuss. There has to be a sense of urgency 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 depicting suicide or the motivations behind it, but rather the emotions that come with it that are vague at best. Everyone says the more specific, the more relatable, but in this case, the more artificial, the better. 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 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 national narrative.
Written by Aahil Dayani | Image Source
Armstrong, Megan. “Logic Tweets National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Statistics Since His ‘1-800’ Release.” Billboard, 16 Nov. 2017, 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, www.fatherly.com/health-science/psychology/netflix-13-reasons-why-suicidal-thoughts/.