Netflix and other media outlets have disregarded common-sense ethics in their quest to produce visceral depictions of teenage mental illness.
Since the 1950s, the era of John Wayne and the Hollywood Western, there has been a marked increase in explicit suicidal depictions in the entertainment media.
Today, not only are more teens aware of mental illness, more seem to be affected by it. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among American teens; nearly 30 million Americans are affected by an eating disorder.
Recognizing the implications of this new demographic, Netflix and other entertainment media have clamored to produce content that includes gripping depictions of teenagers dealing with suicide, sexual orientation, eating disorders, and much more.
But one show, in particular, stands out: Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. Released in its entirety in April, the fictional story depicts the life of Hannah Baker, a high school student who killed herself and left behind a series of tapes explaining why.
The drama quickly became the most tweeted about show of the year — and for good reason.
While some who watched it lauded the show, it made others squeamish. Schools sent newsletters to families expressing concern, mental health experts feared the show crossed clear ethical guidelines, suicide survivors expressed disgust.
The World Health Organization in 2008 published guidelines for media professionals on how to responsibly depict suicide. It suggested avoiding language that sensationalizes suicide or presents it as a normal solution to problems. It said graphic depictions of acts of suicide should be avoided.
Television and movie producers have ignored those guidelines, which were primarily directed to journalists rather than entertainment companies.
But even fictional representations of suicide can make the wrong impact.
A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Network reported a significant surge in web searches for “how to commit suicide,” “commit suicide,” and “how to kill yourself” after 13 Reasons Why was released.
Despite these concerns, Netflix released a film in June, To the Bone, which depicts a young woman’s struggle with anorexia.
Proponents of these films offer the same argument: Controversy is necessary to spur important conversations.
It’s true that the JAMA study also showed an increase in searches for suicide prevention. But I disagree with the notion that you can’t have one without the other. There have been many responsible representations of mental illness.
Depictions of people dealing with anorexia, depression, and other mental health issues can be the impetus for positive change. But not if they exploit these problems and cost a vulnerable person’s life.
As a journalist, I sympathize with screenwriters who want to present visceral representations of mental illness.
As a person with loved ones who suffer from their own demons, I empathize with survivors who want to latch onto a poetic narrative.
But to romanticize any form of mental struggle without proper regard to ethical standards does more harm than good.