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A few REASONS WHY not

Madhav Prakash

The release of the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why in 2017 was hit with massive backlash from educators, psychologists, and parents of teenagers across the world. Many mental health experts argued that in the portrayal of the suicidality of Hannah Baker, the show glorified suicide. Narrated by a prerecorded voiceover of Hannah’s perspective, the show was also however celebrated for daring to start the conversation about teenage mental health- but this didn’t come near negating the massive criticisms on its handling of the matter of suicide.

Many psychologists expressed concern that the graphic portrayal of how Hannah killed herself could spark a contagion effect and trigger copycat suicides in its young, vulnerable viewers. This moved Netflix to remove the entirety of that scene from the first season in 2019, two years after its premiere, but some maintain that this was not enough. They additionally added trigger warnings and linked to resources on episodes that have graphic content or discuss suicidality in an attempt to mitigate potential risks.

This link between media and real-life self-harm is not new, however, and has been a subject of research for years. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found no direct link between the broadcast of three films that depicted suicide and nationwide suicide affiliate deaths. This same study found however that data reflected an increase in the usage of the suicide method highlighted in one of the films, which allowed them to conclude that fictional representations of suicide may serve as stimuli for imitative behavior in the audience. At the same time, popular media has the strength to start open conversations and afford us the opportunity to educate people about suicide prevention and suicide-related grief and loss. The general public is much more likely to want to watch a TV show or film than read a research paper talking on the issue.

More recently, the death of Indian film star Sushant Singh Rajput and the irresponsible journalism that has followed has gotten many people in the subcontinent, where stigmas around mental health often prevail in such conversations, talking about suicide. Even after it had been established that his death was a suicide, the dominant narrative suddenly flipped to the toxicity of the film industry. TV and print journalists seemed to ignore the myriad factors that may lead to someone making the decision to end their life and instead attributed it wholly to losing roles and struggling to land parts in big films. With no consideration for Rajput’s friends, family, and loved ones, the issue has since become highly politicised and remains the focal point of many primetime news shows even today.

Instead of repurposing the death of an influential celebrity to spread a message about suicide prevention and mental health, anchors have used factoids to constantly launch ad hominems and make judgments on peoples’ characters and mental health as a whole. This has unfortunately led to at least three copycat suicide cases reported to the police since Rajput’s initial passing. And that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to real-world impacts. Irresponsible media representation can lead to increased suicidality rates, and the undertones of judgment often make consumers of this media hesitant about seeking help.

That leads to the question of what responsible representation looks like. It goes without saying that production companies and streaming platforms have a responsibility to appropriately describe the contents of the film in trailers or description boxes. This must include information about the potentially sensitive subject matter, or what is colloquially referred to as a trigger warning. In general, throwing around terms like suicide and mental illness trivialises the actual problems and deters people from appropriate paths of recovery. Lastly, and imperatively, whenever a TV show, YouTube video, movie, newspaper, or news program talk about suicide, they should link to resources and platforms where their audience may find helpline numbers, free counseling services, etc.

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