The Portrayal of Suicide in Media Needs to Change

This article was originally published on www.theboldopinion.com on April 2, 2018.

Warning: This article contains discussion of suicide spoilers for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and 13 Reasons Why.  If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal ideations, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

The 2010s should be a decade to remember.  Now more than ever, media outlets are tackling hot-button issues with unprecedented insight and sensitivity.  We are seeing shows, films, books, and even video games successfully explore issues such as political unrest, racism, and drug/alcohol abuse respectfully, often with little sermonizing.  It is a wonderful feeling to see these and other issues not be ignored, as they affect thousands of people every day and should get their time in the sun.

However, there is one issue that is continuously mishandled by the media: The portrayal of suicide and its aftermath.  Suicide is a heavy topic that no one ever wants to think about, but that is precisely the reason why we need to discuss it respectfully and without simplification.  In 2017, we saw two television shows take suicide by the horns in an attempt to make it a part of the global conversation: 13 Reasons Why, a teen drama centering on a teen suicide and its aftereffects, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical dramedy about relationships.  Ironically, I feel that the latter explores suicidal ideations and their ripples far better than the show that uses that exact idea as its selling point.

13 Reasons Why follows a boy named Clay whose world is rocked when his friend Hannah commits suicide, leaving behind 13 tapes that reveal the people and events that led to her act.  The series fails to portray a realistic world or bring Hannah’s mental health into the conversation.  What’s worse, the suicide scene is needlessly graphic and is accompanied by narration describing exactly what and how Hannah did it, including a shot of the bloody wound.  Lastly, the school guidance counselor does not attempt to contact Hannah’s parents after noticing warning signs in a conversation with her before the act (something he is legally allowed to do if he believes she may be a danger to herself or others).  This show could have made waves of positive change had it played the events realistically, but falls flat on its face by succumbing to teen melodrama and overusing fancy camerawork in an attempt to hide it.

On the other side, there’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical comedy about a girl who leaves her high-paying job in New York to stalk her ex in California.  While the idea seems poised to fail, the show exploits it for both comedic and dramatic effect, commenting on modern relationships and, in the 3rd season, diagnosing its lead character with Borderline Personality Disorder after a failed suicide attempt and spending the remainder of said season watching her slow recovery.  While the music and humor might not work for everyone, its exploration of mental illness is one that has thankfully garnered positive attention from multiple outlets.  The suicide attempt is also shown here, but the show takes great pains to show her sessions with a psychologist and a few group therapy meetings.   After she gets out of the hospital, one of her friends begs her never to try it again, to which she responds, “I would like to promise you that… but I can’t…. I don’t know what the future holds, so I can’t promise anything to anybody but myself”.  That type of honesty is poignant and heartbreaking, which is exactly what it should be when discussing something like this.  While there are a few isolated jokes later in the season that slightly lessen the impact, they don’t derail the momentum at all.  It is quite interesting that a show with wacky musical numbers and surreal humor produced by a network mainly known for teen and superhero dramas (the CW) is more adept at handling this topic than the Netflix series with a popular book as its basis.

Television is a powerful medium that can leave lasting impacts on the world.  While some shows push boundaries in terms of their violence, profanity, or sexual material, others use it as a means to discuss harsh realities while still providing an entertaining watch.  I’m not saying that 13 Reasons Why is the worst show to happen to humanity or that Crazy Ex is a flawless gem; both have high and low points that make it better and worse than others in its ilk.  Ultimately, if TV producers want to discuss suicide, then they need to do it in a way that informs the general population that there is help out there for people who need it, and never, under any circumstances, overdramatize the situation for the sake of controversy.  For some, it could very well be the difference between life and death.

 

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