13 Reasons Why the Media Needs to Be More Socially Conscious with Suicide Prevention

Written by Rebecca Morganbesser

On March 31, 2017, Netflix released a new series based off of the best-selling book, 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher. In the series, viewers watch and listen to a teenage girl named Hannah Baker recount her experiences being bullied, harassed, and raped before watching her slit her wrists and slowly bleed out alone in her bathtub.

Suicides among young adults has been an epidemic that has gotten very little attention from the media. However, talking about suicide prevention and how to help individuals who are feeling suicidal is crucial to saving young lives around the world. Television, social media platforms, and magazines can help educate large audiences on the risk factors and warning signs of suicide. Through the aid of socially conscious media, people everywhere could be educated on programs, facilities, and groups to help cope with mental illness, stress, or whatever else might be causing suicidal thoughts or actions. It is imperative for the media to try harder to potentially save the lives of people who may be harboring suicidal thoughts.

The media can lead the movement in helping to save lives. If it can learn from it’s mistakes.

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Suicide is not a new problem in the United States, but in recent years it has increased dramatically. In 2015, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that over 400,000 people were hospitalized for injuries related to self-harm, and approximately 45,000 people succeeded in their attempts to end their life. Of the 45,000 people that killed themselves in 2015, over 25% of those people were young adults or teenagers, predominately girls, (“Suicide Statistics”). Twenty-five percent of 45,000 people is approximately 11,000 people a year. With this current rate of 11,000 young adults killing themselves a year, why isn’t there a bigger emphasis on prevention and helping those who feel troubled, or like they have no reason to live in the media? If the media chose to be proactive in talking about suicide prevention and really opened up the conversation regarding suicide, maybe parents, schools or employers, could introduce better discussions and protocols for their children, students, or employees who display the warning signs of suicide.

The warning signs of suicide are broken up into three categories: Talk, behavior, and mood.

Talking about feeling like a burden, behaving recklessly or acting aggressively, and a loss of interest are just some of the troubling changes one can experience as a suicidal person, or one can observe in a suicidal person, (“Risk Factors”). The main difference between a risk factor and a warning sign is that a risk factor does not necessarily need to be an observable trait, it can be hereditary. A warning sign is specifically observable or reportable behaviors one can assess in an individual. As for warning signs, there are many more then those listed above, how are people supposed to remember all these warning signs when they do not hear about them?

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There is a way to report on suicide prevention that keeps the tone of the report sensitive to families and friends of victims as well as informative to the general public. Unfortunately, the media often reports on the most “flashy” or “intriguing” suicide attempts. Including celebrity suicides, jumping off bridges, and any other way that is uncommon and will pull a crowd in to listen. A study conducted by Merike Sisask and Airi Varnik entitled, “Media Roles in Suicide Prevention: A Systemic Review,” from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health stated that, “several studies have revealed how media reports tend to ‘advertise’ dramatic and highly lethal suicide methods (burning, charcoal burning, shooting, jumping, railway and subway suicides,) which are rare in real life. Media reports are not representative to official suicide data and tend to exaggerate sensational suicides,” (133). This is the problem with the media reporting on something as serious as suicide or suicide prevention: they exaggerate the facts for ratings, and they do not accurately discuss suicide prevention methods, nor do they represent the more common ways people choose to commit suicide. With the power media sources such as major news networks and newspapers like CNN — or even a teen drama on Netflix — are given to capture people’s attention and reach wide audiences, they should be focusing less on the action of suicide, which can have negative effects, and more on prevention methods.

The problem with reporting on suicide attempts is that it can create what is known as “copycat suicides.” These are suicides committed by people after a suicide has been covered by the media or heard about by a number of suicidal people. A correlation has been proven between media coverage of suicides and copycat suicides. Typically, the media chooses to report on obscure methods of committing suicide and so the copycat suicides can be correlated to be caused by these reports. A study done by researchers Albert C. Yang, and Ben-Chang Shia entitled, “Suicide and Media Reporting: A Longitudinal and Spatial Analysis” found that:

Prior studies focused mainly on increased suicide deaths following celebrity suicide, which was also replicated in our analysis. However, we considered a delayed effect of copycat suicide may exist following minor suicide events, which may be more crucial than celebrity deaths, because reports of such events comprised the majority of suicide news, (432).

This study found that reporting on the act of suicide could be detrimental in creating copycat suicide attempts. Studies showing the correlation between media reporting on suicide and an increased amount of suicides blatantly shows the media how they have been approaching the topic of suicide all wrong. On the other hand, nowhere in this study does it show that there is any correlation between discussing suicide prevention and an increased number of suicides. Yet the media chooses to discuss people jumping off bridges and burning themselves alive, rather than truly discussing ways to help people.

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Recent celebrity suicides have brought to light the lack of suicide prevention awareness the media discusses, and how harmful that lack of discussion could be. Former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez committed suicide Wednesday, April 19th, while being incarcerated for murder. The news has been covering this story heavily since it broke. The coverage has discussed the murder charges Hernandez faced, the family that he left behind, there has been some extensive coverage of how the New England Patriots are reacting to the news, but there has been absolutely no coverage of the prevention methods for suicide. Not one news outlet has discussed the risk factors that any person struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression could be feeling, displayed the suicide prevention hotline on their network, and there have been no questions as to why federally funded prisons do not have better protocols in place for handling situations in which prisoners feel as though they might take their own life.

With so many studies suggesting that reporting on suicides increases the number of suicides in other people, one can only wonder why the media would continue running the story of Aaron Hernandez’s death and how he committed suicide in prison on their front pages, trending stories, and on a repetitive loop on major news networks. CNN reporters Jason Hanna and Eric Levenson wrote and keep updating the article, “Former NFL star Aaron Hernandez Hangs Himself in Prison, officials say,” and in the article, the reporters state, “The 27-year-old former tight end for the New England Patriots hanged himself with a bedsheet attached to a window in his cell.” With so many studies proving the correlation of copycat suicides, the media is playing a very scary and potentially fatal role in suicide victims lives when they emphasize and draw attention to a suicide case such as the Aaron Hernandez suicide.

Suicide prevention hotlines provide a 24-hour outlet for individuals to reach out and discuss their feelings or thoughts. It is a method counselors or therapists often use because they cannot be there for their clients all the time. An academic journal article written by Jason McGlothlin and Betsy Page at Kent State University entitled, “Validation of the Simplest Steps Model of Suicide Assessment,” stated that:

Currently, hotlines are widely known and highly accessible and provide a valuable resource to individuals who may not seek other means of professional help. Suicide prevention hotlines have also have also been seen as providing the truest look at one’s suicidality because people typically call these hotlines in their highest state of suicidal ideation and lethality, (298).

Suicide prevention hotlines (see bottom of article for more information) are great resources, and something as small as a phone number could be incorporated by mainstream media to alert people that there is help. By displaying the phone number, loved ones could seek help in how to care for a person who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts, they could be educated on behaviors to be aware of, and even discuss how they are feeling as well. It also could possibly show someone who feels as though they have no one that there is always someone, somewhere who will listen. It would not take much on mainstream media’s end to display the suicide prevention hotline somewhere, where anyone could see it, and potentially use it. Any media source that wants to discuss or touch upon the topic of suicide should also then provide viewers with the suicide prevention hotline number, at the very least.

Unfortunately, media sources are continuously guilty of showing suicides, but not the prevention methods, which is a main criticism of the hit series 13 Reasons Why.

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In 13 Reasons Why, viewers watch as Hannah Baker slit her wrists and slowly bleed out alone in her bathtub in what is arguably the most harrowing hour of television ever produced. Although the series was an extremely powerful experience, it focuses intently on the act of the suicide, rather than what could have been done to save Hannah Baker. The power of the show has drawn in many viewers and has caught the attention of the media, but was the show beneficial to discussing suicide prevention? TV critic Sonia Saraiya discusses the heart wrenching show in the article “Variety TV Critics Discuss Graphic Depictions of Rape and Suicide in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why” where she states, “If I ever thought slitting my wrists seemed like a good idea before, it is completely stomach-turning to think on it now. But on the other hand, the scene provided an interested viewer with the exact methodology of doing it, and an idea of what it might feel like.” This show did shed a very bright light on suicide in young adults, and how words have a powerful impact on someone. However, it also showed viewers who may be feeling suicidal an exact way to end their life.

The show was so real, it even showed which direction one should slit their wrists so that nothing can be medically done to save the cut veins. The media’s role in this show is that it has really promoted it, and there have even been television commercials regarding the show, but it seems no one in the media stopped and thought of the negative effects this could have, or the copycat suicides this show could produce in young adults who identify, or feel as troubled, as Hannah Baker.

On the flip side, the opposition strongly believes that suicide is a public health issue and because it is classified as a public health issue, it should be discussed through the media. They believe that if done correctly, in a nonjudgmental and clinical way, reporting on the act of suicide could potentially save lives. A report from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center entitled “The Role of the Media in Preventing Suicide” found these steps are important to follow when reporting on suicide:

Refrain from detailed description of the method of death. While you may need to provide a description of the cause of death, you should not provide a “how to” guide for dying by suicide […] Do not let the glamour of celebrity suicides obscure the reality of the act. A celebrity’s suicide should be reported as a tragedy, not as a model for others.

These guidelines provided by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center is an excellent resource for the media. These basic fundamentals allow the media to report on suicide in a way that will not make suicidal people feel judged, or give them ideas on methods to commit suicide. These suggestions keep the conversation related to the public health issue behind suicide and the prevention of these acts, rather than fixating on the actual act itself.

The complication with the opposition’s argument is that the media does not follow these guidelines at all when reporting on suicide. Studies insist that it is better to avoid reporting on the actual act and stay focused on the prevention resources that could have been utilized, but CNN provided step-by-step instructions as to how Aaron Hernandez committed suicide while being incarcerated. The media tends to exaggerate the most “flashy” of suicide attempts and celebrity suicides. This reporting tactic only sparks more interest in someone who is considering suicide and could ultimately start a trend of copycat suicides.

In the spring of 2017, I conducted a study at SUNY Orange in Middletown, New York, where I surveyed young adults between the ages of 16-25 on their knowledge of suicide warning signs, and what they thought of media being involved with suicide prevention. In my study, I asked participants to “check off” all the warning signs of suicide; 65% of the people polled did not know all the warning signs of suicide. Another question on the survey asked participants if they knew the suicide prevention hotline number; again 65% of participants did not know this either. The most interesting finding was that 95% of participants agreed that it could be beneficial in identifying suicidal behaviors to hear about them from the news, in newspapers, and through other forms of media. The results yielded from my study help prove that people are not well educated on the warning signs of suicide and the prevention methods that are available to people feeling suicidal. These results also help to prove that the media does have a responsibility in helping to educate people in suicide prevention.

The media continues to ignore the reality that there is a correct way to report on something as serious and sensitive as suicide prevention. The abundant lack of research and ignorance to the findings of studies analyzing the wrong ways to report on suicide cannot be ignored any longer. It is pivotal that the consumers of media do not tolerate the reports of step-by-step guides from celebrity suicides, and the television shows that advertise to viewers exactly what they have to do to end their lives. It is time to stop shift the focus from shock value to preventative proactivity. The more educated viewers are on what to look for, or warning signs their loved ones could be displaying, the more people can fight for their loved ones, themselves, or anyone else who may be struggling. The media could help in saving lives, but first they must know that what they have always done is wrong and will no longer be tolerated. Suicide prevention must be taken seriously, and must be talked about before more young adult lives are taken too soon.

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Remember: You’re not alone.

Confidential help is available for free. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255, or chat with someone for free. Available 24 hours everyday.

 

Rebecca Morganbesser is a 21-year-old nursing major at SUNY Orange in Middletown, NY. She writes, “Truthfully, my professor believed in the strength of this paper from the beginning stages of writing, and if it weren’t for him, I might have never written about something this important.” 

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