A Closer Look at the Impact of Suicide and Mental Health in Entertainment and Pop Culture

This blog is part II in a series of blogs dedicated to suicide prevention and awareness. To read part I, click here.  

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers, but instead of raising awareness, instilling education and offering support, too often mainstream entertainment including movies, TV shows and podcasts paint an inaccurate picture of the real causes of teen suicide. In many instances, these shows spread inaccurate information about risk factors and resources available to young people. A few of them have even been accused of glamorizing suicide.  

Recent programs have brought the topic of suicide and mental health back into the news headlines and ultimately our conversations with one another. Netflix recently released 13 Reasons Why, a show in which seventeen-year-old Hannah Baker posthumously explains the 13 reason why she killed herself. The S-Town podcast, released in March, explores the descent of its true-life protagonist and suicide of John B. McLemore. Both address the topic of suicide in very different ways, and both have received some criticism from mental health professionals. 

Just Entertainment?

It’s easy to simply dismiss these shows as nothing more than entertainment. But it’s important to understand how media influences our perceptions and critical to distinguish the reality of teen suicide differs greatly from the fiction presented in shows like 13 Reason Why. This very topic was presented in a recent webinar discussion from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The webinar discussed how the graphic scenes portrayed in 13 Reason Why raise cause for concern for contagion and trauma activation,” says Dani Singer, founder of Therapy Threads and licensed marriage and family therapist. The show’s themes are dark, engaging and relatable, which entices a younger audience. But Singer warns that teens with a history of trauma should NOT watch the show. “Furthermore, the webinar also addressed the fact that teens who have previously or are currently struggling with depression, self harm, suicide ideation, past suicide attempts or have experienced trauma in their lives such as bullying, harassment or sexual assault are already at risk and the graphic imagery presented could be extremely triggering and could cause contagion or “copycat” effects, and that’s very troubling,” Singer said.

Help for Teens

Another criticism of these shows is how they often portray adults as clueless, unavailable or unapproachable for teens to use as a resource or someone to talk to about trauma or suicide. “The webinar made it clear that reinforcing a belief that adults won’t understand is harmful in certain ways”, says Singer. “The facts are that when there are trustworthy adults around that know what’s going on, that the risk of teen suicide is lower - the show unfortunately misses this opportunity for education. And in the show, the school counsellor is portrayed as not very helpful, which is in reality the exact opposite of the role school counselors play in real life. The first access point for teens in trouble is often through the school.”

Causes and Risk Factors  

Singer says the webinar also explained how these programs often simplify and or bend the facts about the causes of suicide to fit their fictional narrative.  

“Life events such as a breakup or financial struggles can certainly be a trigger for someone, but there’s usually a number of factors at play - biology, mental health factors, past history - not just one causal event. It’s incorrect to portray that someone commits suicide because an event “happens” to them. It’s usually a much more complicated confluence of risk factors.”

Other important facts and risk factors Singer mentions include: 

  • 9 out of 10 people who die by suicide have a treatable mental health condition - mental health is a key risk factor for all age groups, especially if there is an undiagnosed, untreated or ineffectively treated mental disorder.
  • 2 out of 3 teens with depression don't get treatment, yet treatment is effective for 8 out of 10 people with depression.
  • Living a healthy lifestyle and being active with exercise, yoga, breathing exercises, and changes in diet can improve mood and relieve anxiety and stress.
  • Mental health symptoms in students are often misinterpreted as normal adolescent mood swings, laziness, poor attitude, or immaturity.
  • Risk factors can be there for a long time, and risk factors are different than warning signs, which signal an imminent suicide risk. If possible, it’s important to recognize the risk factors before it gets to the point of warning signs.

By keeping these things in mind, you can help yourself or a loved one to better recognize the risk factors and warning signs of suicide. If you are having thoughts of suicide, seek help immediately and call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Additional resources:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention 

Adolescent Depression and Suicide Risk

Teen Suicides: What Are the Risk Factors?

Youth Suicide Statistics

 

13 Reasons Why NOT


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