Mental Health and Suicide as Addressed in the Media

On average, there are about five thousand, two-hundred and forty suicide attempts by young people in grades 7-12 (Youth Suicide Statistics, Jason Foundation). An even more alarming statistic, four out of five teens who attempt suicide have displayed clear warning signs. Yet, suicide is a topic that is glossed over by various media outlets, but especially film and television. There is a stigma regarding mental health and suicide that it is a sign of weakness to speak up and ask for help (Project Wake Up). This stigma makes mental illness and suicide a topic that we do not want to talk about, because it makes us “uncomfortable.” But, for there to be any hope of ending the tragic epidemic of suicide, there has to be honest conversation about the problem at hand. And the number one way that this can be achieved is through the media’s depiction of mental health and suicide.


Recently, Netflix released a show entitled 13 Reasons Why. 13 Reasons, directed by Brian Yorkey, and co-produced by Selena Gomez, tells the story of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a 17-year-old girl who killed herself. Before she did so she recorded tapes telling her story. The shows main plot was centered around the main male protagonist, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who gets the tapes next. Each person who is on the tapes before Clay has heard them already, because Hannah wished that they would be passed on down the line of the names of the thirteen people that somehow, some way contributed to her self-deprecation. Part of Hannah’s plan to make sure that everyone who was on the tapes heard the tapes was to warn that someone they knew, a close friend of Hannah’s, had a second set of the tapes that could be released for the public to hear if they messed up. The show is based on the book by Jay Asher, although however the show creators chose to take the show onto a more dramatic turn. Most critics realize that this is mostly done to set up for a second season.


Just a week before the show was released, a major figure in the mental health world passed away through suicide (John M. Grohol, Project Semicolon Founder Amy Bleuel Dies at 31). Amy Bleuel, the founder of Project Semicolon, took her own life on March 24, a week before the projected release date of the show. Many criticised Netflix for still releasing the show, as it is likely that the mental health community is shaken up by the death of Bleuel. Bleuel founded Project Semicolon after the suicide of her father. Project Semicolon was made to help those struggling with mental health, coming from the idea that an author uses a semicolon when they could have ended a sentence but chose not to and your life is the story. One of the biggest aspects of the project is many people tattooed a semicolon somewhere on themselves, including Selena Gomez, a producer of 13 Reasons Why, and two actors, Alisha Boe (Jessica) and Miles Heizer (Alex).


The show, at first, appeared to get applause and praise for it’s blatant honesty in the telling of the story of someone battling mental health issues. But, then, the show began to get criticized. Some of the major criticisms are the risk of suicide contagion through showing Hannah’s suicide so graphically in the last episode, and that the show did not give any alternatives to suicide because Hannah did not try to reach out to anyone other than her school counselor. The way that media presents suicide does have an affect on the way suicides can happen (Catherine Thorbecke, ‘13 Reasons Why faces Backlash from Suicide Prevention Advocacy Group). When someone who is struggling with mental health is presented with these really graphic images of suicide, without being provided with the idea that there is opportunity to reach out for and seek help, it increases the risk that they will “replay what they’ve seen.” The show does not cover a viable alternative to suicide, even from the standpoint of providing a Hotline number at the end of an episode or at the close of the last episode. Even this seemingly little move can supposedly help prevent these copycat suicides, merely by showing that there are other options opposed to suicide.
       

It is important to note that the American Association of Suicidology came up with a Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, which many claim that 13 Reasons Why did not follow. Parts of the Recommendations are as follows:


Inform the audience without sensationalizing the suicide and minimize prominence (e.g., “Kurt Cobain Dead at 27”). Use school/work or family photo; include hotline logo or local crisis phone numbers. Carefully investigate the most recent CDC data and use non-sensational words like “rise” or “higher.” Most, but not all, people who die by suicide exhibit warning signs. Include the “Warning Signs” and “What to Do” sidebar (from p. 2) in your article if possible. “A note from the deceased was found and is being reviewed by the medical examiner. Report on suicide as a public health issue. Seek advice from suicide prevention experts. Describe as “died by suicide” or “completed” or “killed him/herself.”


At the very beginning of the paper including these Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, it says that covering suicide briefly and carefully is enough to change public misconceptions and myths, and help those who feel vulnerable seek out help. But, is this really true? Even if it becomes “graphic and triggering,” would it not be better to show suicide for what it is? This is what Yorkey actually says himself in Beyond the Reasons, a special following the last episode of 13 Reasons Why. “We wanted to show that there is absolutely nothing worthwhile about suicide, at all,” he says.


Addressing the fact that Hannah’s suicide was depicted so graphically, or as claimed by some that it was wrong to include it entirely, the intent must be considered. Not only the intent of including the scene, but the intent of the show: TO OPEN UP CONVERSATION. Suicide should not be taken lightly. Yes, there is a way to “safely” go about covering the topic. However, when has safe ever truly gotten us anywhere? Would people even be talking about the show if Hannah’s suicide had not been depicted as it was? Or even, if there was not the aspect of the tapes? Not at all. As people in general, a dramatic, drawn out showing of the suicide would grab one’s attention way more than glossing over it or only a verbal depiction of what happened. Anne Cohen, with Refinery29, claims it is almost a how-to-guide to suicide (Anne Cohen, Is this the Most Shocking Depiction of Suicide on TV?). However, Cohen still addresses the fact: should suicide be easy to watch? Agreeing with Cohen, 13 Reasons Why makes us confront important questions such as these.


Another major, major criticism of the show is that they neglected to show how the people were emotionally and mentally affected by Hannah’s suicide (Alexa Curtis, Does ‘13 Reasons Why’ Glamorize Teen Suicide?, Rolling Stone). Curtis says that the tapes both prevent the viewers from seeing the grief and emptiness that occurs after someone commits suicide and that unlike when a normal teen commits suicide the tapes allow Hannah to live on. However, fans of the show tend to disagree. Various characters, including Clay himself, experience their own share of mental breakdowns and struggling with emotions. The two with the biggest, following Clay, would be Jessica and Alex. Alex, supposedly, ends up killing himself he’s so eaten up. (And this is, possibly, a representation of the suicide contagion that truly does occur.) Jessica’s experience comes from finding out that Hannah was telling the truth about the rape that she witnessed, but it is still there. Clay hallucinating what was going on as Hannah verbalized it is an insight of what was going inside of Clay’s mind. Not to mention, his shouting about how “everyone is so nice until they drive you to kill yourself.” There is a very clear parallel between Clay’s emotions that he's feeling while listening to the tapes and Hannah’s emotions that she feels leading up to killing herself. Even Tony grapples with his emotions, especially considering he had seen Hannah after she killed herself.

 

Clay’s role is another aspect of this show that is criticized. It is both interesting yet disturbing to many critics that Clay starts to act as a sort of vigilante against the kids who hurt Hannah (Sadie Gennis, 13 Reasons Why: We Need to Talk About the Ending). Until Clay decides to record Bryce admitting to raping Hannah, it paints Bryce’s (Justin Prentice) potential punishment for his assault against Hannah as almost justice for Hannah. Gennis points out that when Tyler (Devin Druid) suggests using Bryce as a scapegoat for what they had done to Hannah that led up to her killing herself, Ryan (Tommy Dorfman) and Alex immediately turn this idea down when what Clay does is almost the same thing, putting the focus on what Bryce did over what everyone else did, but was seen as heroic. Gennis also criticizes making the connection between suicide and rape saying, “not all rape victims commit suicide, and not all suicide victims were rape.” However, this connection was made to show what broke Hannah. That she did not have the courage to speak up and stop Bryce from raping Jessica and later on did not have the courage to name Bryce as her rapist, these were both things that acted as a sort of last straw to Hannah. This left her with the feeling that she was doing more harm than good in people’s lives. Wouldn’t anyone put in this situation feel that same way?


Yet another issue brought up about 13 Reasons Why is the fact that the creators of the show met with mental health specialists before shooting the show. This was done in an attempt to accurately address mental health and suicide. However, the creators allegedly did practically the exact opposite of what they were told not to do when addressing suicide. The logic behind what this was done was because it would be better to accurately depict what one person goes through, not necessarily a representation of suicide as a whole. Another reason why they would likely choose to steer away from what they were told not to do was to take a more honest, true-like approach.
In order to end the aforementioned stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, there has to be more honest conversation about it. Among all of the criticisms of 13 Reasons Why, they are still acknowledging the opportunity to have a conversation about mental health and suicide. Instead of just letting your child see those graphic scenes of Hannah killing herself and sitting on that thought alone, maybe talk to them about the other options and how suicide should never be an option (Selena Gomez, Beyond the Reason, Netflix special). Even if the show is potentially triggering, it opens up the opportunity to have conversations between adults and their children. It can be used as an aid.


And, so far, 13 Reasons Why has been used for this purpose. Many media outlets, including local news stations have reported on the show and how it’s able to be used as a Segway into these types of conversations. On top of that, all of the coverage via internet and reviews of the show are still increasing this conversation. They are encouraging people to think, and talk, about suicide more than it’s ever been talked about. Even if it’s merely the discussion of the fact that the show is glorifying suicide, that is still telling teens that suicide rare to never has the same effect that it does on the characters in 13 Reasons. Child psychologist, Janet Taylor, applauds Gomez for the show even though they neglect to show the other possible options, including reaching out, because they set up the potential for conversation. In reality, the chances that a person would actually try to reach out would be very, very slim and it’s not because of the fact that the media does not show that there are ways to reach out but rather because of the fact that mental health is not so easily understandable that you would even understand that something is troubling you and you have the courage to reach out. Therefore, this does not mean that the show does not encourage people who are struggling to speak out. It just encourages viewers who are struggling with this in a different way than giving them a hotline or showing the main character reaching out herself.
It should be addressed, that many other shows surrounding the topic of mental health and suicide neglect to follow the recommendations set out by the American Association of Suicidology, yet provide an accurate scope into the life of someone struggling with mental illness. Look at Girl, Interrupted for example. Girl, Interrupted told the story of a girl who was struggling with borderline personality disorder and her experience and encounters within a mental hospital.


This movie is more applauded for it’s depiction of what truly used to go on within “sanitariums.” However, this movie did not “briefly and carefully” cover the topic of mental health and suicide. Naturally, drawing out the story into a movie made it not so. Much like the major claim against 13 Reasons Why, the movie did not truly show an alternative to suicide, minus the physical setting of the movie- being within a mental hospital. Susanna Kaysen, the main character, did not even seek out the help of a mental hospital on her own- her family did. However, there are some parallels between 13 Reasons and Girl, Interrupted.


Girl, Interrupted depicts the struggle of Kaysen to understand her own mental illness. This is also done in 13 Reasons, just in a more subtle way. Part of the reason why Hannah Baker does not ask for help is that she does not necessarily understand what she is feeling and why she is feeling. Susanna Kaysen not only does not totally understand what she is feeling and whis is feeling it, but she does not accept the fact that she needs help. This could be the same for Hannah as well. If Kaysen who has a “definitive” label on her illness does not understand, does not acknowledge, that she needs help, of course a teen girl who does not have a label is definitely not going to reach out for help.


Another parallel between the two is the way that it shows how other people affect how we see ourselves. Of course, in Girl, Interrupted the most obvious way that this is shown is through literally being given that label of: Borderline Personality Disorder. However, it is also shown through minor interactions between Susanna and other patients in the hospital. Even an interaction between Susanna and the cab driver bringing her over to the hospital. This same topic is one of the main points of 13 Reasons. Every little thing that we say or do to others coupled with how other people see us affects how we see ourselves. This is very clearly seen through how Hannah is affected by the “minor” things people decide to say or think about her. For example, Jessica calling her a w**** for “being” with Alex and the fact that Jessica stopped being her friend altogether over a lie affect Hannah majorly.


Both this movie and this Netflix series share that they are accurate representation of what would go on during the time periods that they are set in. Girl, Interrupted is a very, very accurate depiction of how a person would both be treated and be put in for long-term hospitalization during the 1960s. In the same sense, the Netflix series a very accurate representation of what it’s like to live as a teenager in the 21st Century (and if we’re being honest, living as a teenager in any period). Every little thing that happens to someone as a teenager feels like it’s going to go on forever. That is why Hannah, and anyone who commits suicide, chooses to commit suicide. It feels like it’s never going to end, that’s the in general part. That whole, feeling like your struggles are never going to end, thing is what happens to every tenager ever. However, living as a teenager in the 21st Century, this feeling is even furthered. Teenagers now can never truly escape the terrors they face, when they face them, because of technology. Practically living on social media is a very accurate picture of what it’s like to live as a teenager now. It’s difficult, and that is shown very well in 13 Reasons.


13 Reasons Why despite, what many people consider to be, it’s flaws, does a very good job at encouraging conversation and even depicting what it truly is like to struggle with suicide. The very things that people critique the show for are the same things that make it an accurate depiction. I truly believe that the fact that it is a potentially triggering depiction of the topic is what makes it helpful. It does not glamorize suicide, even through the tapes allowing Hannah to “live on.” While the danger of suicide contagion is real, it can be prevented merely by conversation. If someone struggling with mental health issues is approached by someone who genuinely cares and wants to have that conversation instead of criticizing them or calling them weak, the spread of suicide can be stopped.


Suicide is a major problem. People struggling do need to know that suicide is never the option they should take. However, the people who may not struggle with the show need to have access to the same information. One thing that the show does so epically well is drag fans along on an emotional journey. It shows viewers that there are people out there that feel that way, in real life. If they can see and feel what some people could really, truly be feeling, and therefore gain even more understanding, this can not only help them help others; it can help them help themselves. If people could just grasp the understanding of what people are really going through-- that is enough to attempt to help others.

 

Works Cited
Cohen, Anne, Best of Netflix • Entertainment • Entertainment News • News • Reclaim Your Domain • TV Shows, and Photo: Courtesy of Netflix. "Is This The Most Shocking Depiction Of Suicide On TV?" 13 Reasons Why Netflix Hannah Suicide Scene Disturbing. Refinery29, 31 Mar. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.
Curtis, Alexa. "Does '13 Reasons Why' Glamorize Teen Suicide?" Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 14 Apr. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.
Gennis, Sadie. "TV Guide." TVGuide. TV Guide, 1 Apr. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.
Grady, Constance. "Netflix's Smartly Tragic 13 Reasons Why Solves Its Source Material's Biggest Problems." Vox. Vox, 02 Apr. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.
Grohol, John M. "Project Semicolon Founder Amy Bleuel Dies at 31." World of Psychology. Psych Central, 31 Mar. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.
Jones, Allie, Jenna Smith, and Carol Ott. "Girl, Interrupted: Two Perspectives." Girl, Interrupted: Two Perspectives 1.9 (2012): 235. Mental Health Clinician. College of Psychiatric and Neurologic Pharmacists, Mar. 2012. Web. 3 May 2017.
"Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide." American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, n.d. Web. 3 May 2017.
Thorbecke, Catherine. "'13 Reasons Why' Faces Backlash from Suicide Prevention Advocacy Group." ABC News. ABC News Network, 18 Apr. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.
Wake Up: Let's End the Stigma. Project Wake Up. Project Wake Up, n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.
"Youth Suicide Statistics." Parent Resource Program. Jason Foundation, 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.






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