It gets better. Suicide is never the answer. You’re not alone. We’re here for you. Everyone knows the clichés that suicide hotline organizations promote, but just how helpful are they? Suicide is within the top 20 causes of death per year, with an average of 800,000 people unfortunately committing suicide each year. Out of those 800,000, many of them are young adults between the ages of 15 and 29, since suicide is the second leading cause of death in that age group. There are different risk factors that can contribute to youth suicide, like a family history of mental health issues or substance abuse addition, but could the way the media and pop culture portrays suicide contribute to the suicide rate in young adults?
Suicide, and mental health issues in general, has always been a subject that people get uncomfortable around. Adults, both parents and academic professionals, get wary when the topic is brought up by young adults and teenagers. You’re just having a bad day, you aren’t depressed, is the go-to saying. Adults seem to brush very real, very present warning signs aside. They blame moodiness and destructive behaviors on “just being a teenager.” Parents don’t want to talk about mental health with their teenager; they don’t want their children to have that label. But ignoring the warning signs, avoiding the discussions, isn’t going to help keep the topic off of their children’s minds.
Books, songs, movies, video games and TV shows, all aimed towards a teenage audience, discuss suicide. Teen magazines, like Seventeen and Teen Vogue, discuss mental health and the ways it is portrayed in entertainment and media. Social media sites like Tumblr and Instagram have accounts dedicated to suicide, both suicide prevention and awareness and pro-suicide. Various popular TV shows, video games, books, etc., deal with suicide and mental health. No matter how bad parents might want to keep their children away from being exposed to suicide, it won’t be an easy accomplishment with the way things are shared so quickly in a technology heavy society and the activists that promote suicide awareness in pop culture.
In recent light, with TV series and songs being released, suicide awareness in teenagers has been present in the media lately. The Netflix original drama, 13 Reasons Why, based off of Jay Asher’s 2007 YA book of the same name, except the “thirteen” is actually spelled out, was released slightly over a month ago to both acclaim and criticism. 13 Reasons Why, both the book and the TV series, tells the story of a girl named Hannah who commits suicide, but before she kills herself, overdosing in the book and slitting her wrists in the TV show, she records the thirteen reasons why that lead her to her ultimate decision of suicide and sends the cassette tapes out to the thirteen people attached to the thirteen reasons. 13 Reasons Why has been given acclaim for portraying suicide in a non-sugarcoated way showing and the different ways that suicide can affect someone, but at the same time the National Association of School Psychologists declares, “We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series.” At the same time that the show is getting praised for the way the writers and producers portrayed how damaging suicide can be, the show is also receiving criticism for over romanticizing Hannah’s suicide, which was not apart of the original novel and which is a point of controversy in pop culture.
While 13 Reasons Why is a whole TV series revolving around suicide, another popular teen TV show, One Tree Hill, has an episode that deals with suicide. “With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept” is the sixteenth episode of season three of One Tree Hill, and it shows the story of Jimmy Edwards, a good minor character turned into a depressed, suicidal, school shooter. The previous episodes showed the buildup to what caused Jimmy to bring a gun to school, loosing his friends, being bullied, etc., and “With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept” shows how Jimmy brought the gun to school and then proceeded to shoot a stray bullet and held a group of students hostage in a classroom before eventually shooting himself. While this episode wasn’t written with intentions to deal directly with teen suicide, it was written to deal directly with school shootings, it also touched a subject about suicidal teenagers.
One of the most horrific school shootings, and mass shooting in general, of recent US history is the Columbine High School Massacre that occurred on April 20th, 1999. The massacre ended with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators, both committing suicide after killing thirteen other people. The investigation that went on after the tragedy showed that both Eric and Dylan showed warning signs that went unnoticed. They both kept journals online for over a year prior to the massacre documenting their anger towards society, violent video games they enjoyed, and their ever growing curiosity and knowledge about weapons. While people besides Eric and Dylan were aware of the websites, nothing drastic ever happened to either of them over the content posted online, which is just another perfect example of how ignoring warning signs in teenagers can turn into something unimaginably drastic.
While it it definitely more common for suicide to be presented to the audience directly through TV shows or movies and with a more tragically direct outcome, many songs have underlying messages about suicide. While some of the messages may be a depressing call for help, others discuss cries for help that are answered and don’t necessarily end with suicide. For example, one of rapper Logic’s newest singles, “1-800-273-8255,” tells the story of someone feeling depressed and who is asking for death while talking to a suicide hotline, but eventually by the end of the song, that someone has found the courage to stay alive. The song, which never once directly mentions suicide, gets its title from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline number. Fans of Logic have reached out to him on social media telling him how much “1-800-273-8255” means to them and has helped them, and Logic has said how humbled he feels about his music meaning so much to so many.
Pop culture, entertainment and social media included, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and all of it is very influential to people from all walks of life. More importantly is the way pop culture deals with serious issues, like suicide and mental health. Within the short time period that 13 Reasons Why has been streaming on Netflix, there have already been cases of copy-cat suicides in teenagers like the one portrayed in the series, letters sent out to parents from school board officials warning them about the subject matter of the show, and a cultivation of memes that have been spread across varying social media outlets. There are the people who aren’t taking the subject matter at hand, suicide in teenagers and the causes leading up to it, serious enough and then there are the people who are taking it too serious to the point where they feel like they should perform a copy-cat suicide.
Suicide is never something to be taken lightheartedly, but the way the media and pop culture is portraying suicide is definitely having an affect on the target audience, aka teenagers. I could go on and on about this topic, which is something I feel strongly about, but I need to keep things on topic and organized. The fact that parents are both unaware and sometimes quick to dismiss their children’s feelings is another contributing issue, especially the fact that they may not be willing to discuss it when their children are being exposed to the topic daily, either by watching the media revolving around it or by scrolling through their social media feeds. But at the same time, writers and producers need to think about the impressionable teenagers, even kids as young as ten and eleven, that will watch and enjoy the content they are producing. Suicide isn’t something to glorify or to romanticize, and the media shouldn’t portray it as so. And they also shouldn’t portray it as “the only option.”
So yes, it gets better. Yes, suicide shouldn’t be the answer. Yes, you aren’t alone. Yes, we’re here for you. But first, people need to realize and understand the really real, very permanent consequences that can come out of suicide portrayal in the media. Everything that is out there will be seen and will hit a chord with someone. Everything is influential nowadays, and it’s up to the people with a following, people like authors, musicians, and actors, to be a positive influence in a world of negativity.