Trigger Warning: This blog discusses themes around suicide, self-harm and death which some readers may find distressing. Wellbeing support resources are included at the bottom of the page.
This piece also includes spoilers from the shows 13 Reasons Why and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
The Romanticising of Suicide and Suicidal Ideation
Suicide has been deeply rooted in stigma within many cultures and societies. However, widespread media availability has allowed writers and journalist to give a voice to suicide, making it more commonplace for viewers. Sky-rocketing social media usage, particularly by young people, has meant potentially harmful content is free to access and may not always be moderated. Samaritans report that 6391 suicides in the UK (not including NI) were recorded in 2021, an overall increase over the previous year.1 I explore whether suicide is romanticised in the media and if this may play a part in increasing suicidal ideation.
In 2020, the BMJ investigated the impact of reporting celebrity suicide. It found that in the 1-2 months following death, an 8-18% increase in suicides occurred. If the method of suicide was included, there was an 18-44% increase in the same method being used.2
The authors report that the five months following the death of Robin Williams, deaths by suicide increased by almost 10% in the US. A different article from The Heights - Boston College on Robin Williams' death echoes this, adding that romanticising suicide by using terminology such as that Williams is now "free" is dangerous. “It is important to understand that suicide is not a path to freedom—it is a cessation of all freedoms.” The article states that suicide should be discussed to help prevent it without romanticising it.3
Other instances where suicides have increased, include after Marylin Monroe’s death in 1962 and after Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther was published, with many using a similar method as the protagonist.
Explanations include possible identification with the celebrity or character and viewing suicide as a valid way to cope with difficulties (especially where no helplines or resources are included). The BMJ authors suggest media reporting may increase suicidal ideation and planning.
Streaming sites are proving popular with younger viewers. 13 Reasons Why is a Netflix teen drama series where the main character takes her life and leaves 13 tapes in which she details the reasons she chose to end her life, as well as the people she believes are responsible. Ending her life is graphically portrayed and PAPYRUS, a suicide prevention charity for young people, states that since the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why premiered, many callers have cited the programme. The charity released a statement warning parents and teens about the effects the show could have on those struggling with their mental health.4
[IMAGE: 13 Reasons Why advertisement Netflix]
An opinion piece by blogger Rachel Lee also criticises the show, feeling it romanticises suicide: “[13 Reasons Why] overlooks the sensitive nuances of mental health and simplifies Hannah’s suicide as a consequence of the actions of 13 people. It fails to show viewers that therapy and/or medication can be extremely helpful and successful. Most disturbingly, it shows the graphic scene of Hannah killing herself.” The author explains that whilst reporting suicide guidelines emphasise not glamorising or describing the method of suicide, the show does both and fails to explore other realities of suicide such as how months later the school moves on or the devastating effects the suicide has on her family and friends years later.5
Conversely, not everyone agrees that the show promotes suicidal ideation in young people. Psychologist Dr Elena Touroni argues: “Those struggling with mental health issues, it could give them the chance to open up a dialogue about a very difficult and taboo issue.”4
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, another teen drama on Netflix, has also been criticised for romanticising suicide. The protagonist, Sabrina, and her boyfriend both die by suicide - she sacrifices herself and he ends up in the afterlife with her shortly after. It has been suggested that the duo’s relationship is toxic and perpetuates the idea that to truly love someone, you must be willing to die for them and that this sends a dangerous message to young viewers.6