When 13 Reasons Why was released earlier this year, it quickly grabbed the attention of not only young viewers, but also mental health professionals.
The Netflix original show, which graphically depicts the suicide of a high school-aged girl and explains why she chose to end her own life, sparked concern among educators and psychologists who deal with young people that may have similar experiences. They wondered if the series would be harmful to young viewers who were psychologically vulnerable or cause them to romanticize death by suicide.
Themes of mental illnesses and suicide have rapidly grown in popular media. Widespread media coverage has sensationalized the tragic deaths of teenagers who commit suicide because of bullying. Fictional works like television shows, movies and young adult fiction novels give insight into the minds of characters with psychological illnesses. Popular music is also lyrically heavier than ever.
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Popular artistic works can be comforting for survivors and insightful for those who may not understand what it feels like. The popularity of works which thematically deal with youth mental health can be useful vehicles to promote helpful dialogue on issues that are often difficult to approach in conversation.
After the 9/11 attacks, dystopian fiction experienced a boom in popularity in the young adult age group. Series like The Hunger Games and Divergent flew off the shelves and onto movie screens as young readers latched onto creative works inspired by the fear the terrorist attacks provoked. But in recent months, teen suicide has seemed to replace the apocalyptic genre’s popularity.
Jenny Strickmaker, a children’s librarian at the Athens County Public Library, said although the darker series like The Hunger Games are still checked out often, young adults seem more drawn to both fiction and nonfiction books with mental health-related themes.
The heaviness of mental illness and suicide is present in many new and popular creative works, from YA fiction to music videos. Robert Miklitsch, an English professor at Ohio University, requires his students to give presentations on music videos in one of his classes. The class has discussed suicidal themes in the video for “Praying” by Kesha and Beyoncé’s visual work for her album Lemonade.
“It’s so much in the culture now, it’s incredible,” Miklitsch said. “I’ve been doing this for a couple years, and it’s amazing how many times (students) bring videos about really serious topics, including suicide. It’s really picked up in the last five or 10 years, but really recently it’s become a big issue.”
Miklitsch has seen firsthand the toll mental illnesses can take on young people. A student of his recently wrote to him about dropping out of school because she was experiencing suicidal thoughts. Another young woman gave a powerful presentation in his class about what he assumed to be a loved one she lost to suicide.
Modern culture is moving too fast for young people, Miklitsch said, and the result is an increase in youth mental illnesses and suicides. But creative works have a way of being therapeutic.
“I think one good thing is a lot of art is addressing those issues,” he said. “I think songs and YA fiction are two of the big things that people are looking to for sustenance.”
Christine Suniti Bhat, a counseling and higher education professor, said there is a myth surrounding works centered on suicide that they will prompt suicidal thoughts in the heads of viewers or readers. That’s what happened when 13 Reasons Why received the backlash it did. But mental illnesses, she said, is what causes suicidal thoughts. When someone decides to die by suicide, it’s because those troubling thoughts have plagued them for a long time, she said.
“The danger is when the conversation doesn’t happen, and when someone who may be experiencing symptoms of depression or social isolation reads a book about a young person who they can identify with who might be contemplating suicide or completes suicide,” Bhat said. “It’s the discussion that is most important to actually raise it to an unstigmatized level, to actually be able to talk about these things openly without feeling that it’s somehow taboo and should not be discussed.
Popular media, Bhat said, can be a helpful tool in facilitating a dialogue about mental health issues and suicides because they’re often not readily discussed beyond a whisper or a rumor between classmates or friends. The discussion of suicidal feelings themselves is often a crucial piece in prompting someone to seek treatment.
“I think by authors and other people who produce media addressing this topic, it allows people to actually explore it individually and think about these issues, but it’s a double-edged sword,” Bhat said. “I think really emphasizing and highlighting the message that even if a character in a book died by suicide, to perhaps have some part in that work which addresses the fact that seeking treatment would have been beneficial.”
Bhat said writing and creating art about the things people find most difficult to discuss can start important conversations and send important messages to those struggling with the same painful thoughts fictional characters are also struggling with — that the road is not one people can’t return from, and the journey is not one they have to take alone.
“I think that by authors writing about that sort of pain that leads to someone wanting to die by suicide, I think that it allows people to explore that pain and to understand if they are experiencing a similar sort of pain, that they’re not alone,” she said.