Suicide provokes powerful and diverse feelings in people. As such, it makes for a compelling storyline in TV dramas, drawing the viewer into the emotionally turbulent world of the protagonist. The recent Netflix production of the 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why was a huge commercial success that garnered viewers from all around the world. It won the accolade of “most tweeted about show of 2017.” It also drew staunch criticism from those who work to prevent suicide for its portrayal of suicide as glamorous.
As a suicide survivor, I can attest that there’s no glory or glamour attached to suicide. Instead, loved ones of the person who has died are left, often alone, to process complicated grief and face social stigmatization.
It’s not only in TV dramas that suicide is viewed through a romantic lens. Suicide can be depicted as a noble and courageous act by ordinary people. After my husband ended his life, I was on the receiving end of several hurtful comments. But the one that left a lasting mark on my psyche came from a close friend of his. The lamentable thing about it is that he had no understanding of how deeply wounding his remarks were. He intended them as praise.
I bumped into this particular friend soon after my husband’s death. After the customary “how are you all?” was out of the way, he launched into telling me that he and his friends were out for drinks the previous Saturday night in a pub in South Dublin. It’s where my husband and I had met up with this all-male group of friends many times. The conversation in the pub turned to talking about his death, and some of the men in the group admitted that they’d thought about suicide at certain times in their lives. He concluded the story with “none of us had the courage to actually do it. We all agreed that your man was the only one brave enough among us to do it.”
I felt unsteady on my feet. Did he actually say my husband’s suicide was an act of bravery?
That they were down at the pub eulogizing him for having left his two small children without a father? The younger of his sons, now age 15, doesn’t remember his father and only knows him through photos. When I had told my sons that their Dad wouldn’t be coming home, their raw grief and piercing cries did not stack up with this image of a fallen hero that his friends were portraying over their pints of Guinness.
Romanticizing suicide does not serve anybody’s interests. It is dangerous for those who are feeling vulnerable and desperate. It is also deeply unhelpful to those trying to process their painful loss.
Suicide is not heroic. The willingness to be vulnerable and to seek help is.
What happened that Saturday night down at our local pub is exactly what some people thinking about suicide fantasize about. They conjure up an idealized version of events in the wake of their tragic death. They visualize themselves being immortalized as a brave warrior or a romantic hero. Social media has a part to play in this glorification of suicide, wherein friends of the deceased turn to FB and other sites with an outpouring of their shock.
Such posthumous popularity can be appealing to somebody who feels their life has been unsatisfying and unremarkable. They feel they can remedy this with a sensational death. Notoriety can seem attractive when you’re feeling worthless.
The Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why portrays vindictive suicide—using death as a means of getting even with those who’ve wronged you. It’s a very tempting proposition, especially for young people. It gives a sense of power to the person contemplating suicide—if you harm me, you’ll pay the ultimate price, a lifetime of guilt.
“Here’s your tape” became a popular meme on social media. Revenge is satisfying, it suggests. So much so that it may be worth dying for.
The plot in 13 Reasons Why explicitly and simplistically places blame on others for driving it’s 17-year old lead character to take her life. It ignores all extenuating factors, such as her fragile mental health and lack of proper support. For this reason, it has attracted severe censure. The New Zealand film office noted that it “does not follow international guidelines for responsible representations of suicide . . . The show ignores the relationship between suicide and the mental illness that often accompanies it.”
Suicide rates are at an almost 30-year high in America. White males account for 70% of all suicides in the US. Statistics reveal that males are 3.5 times more likely than females to die by suicide. More women attempt suicide than men, but men use lethal means—such as firearms—so the completion rate is much higher.
In his book Silent Grief, Christopher Lukas estimates that for every person who dies by suicide there are seven to ten people intimately affected. With the World Health Organization reporting 800,000 deaths by suicide every year, that is a huge number of people struggling with silent grief. Romanticizing and glorifying suicide only adds to their heavy burden.
We need fruitful dialogue around suicide to dismantle the persistent stigma around it.
We need more resources dedicated to helping people, especially white American men with no college education, feel they have something to contribute and are valued members of society.
We need to address the fallout for this demographic of men; in particular, the mechanization of industry that has made their skills obsolete. What we certainly don’t need is suicide being used to drive huge TV ratings at the cost of triggering vulnerable people to see suicide as a viable solution to their suffering.
YOU CAN DO SOMETHING TO PREVENT SUICIDE.
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