A delicate balance: Safe portrayal of suicide and self-harm on screen

The importance of caution when depicting suicide in television and film has been highlighted in a new book examining the ways contemporary media platforms explore themes of dying, death and grief.

A chapter co-authored by Everymind and Mindframe Project Lead, Dr Elizabeth Paton, focuses on how the debate and research sparked by the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why helped shape safer, more considered approaches to potentially harmful content.

First streaming in 2017, the first season of 13 Reasons Why depicts, in a retrospective episodic format, the lead up to the suicide death of a high school student.

At the time, the series sparked heated debate between creative industries and mental health and suicide prevention professionals around what is safe and appropriate content for young people to consume.

As well as identifying an increase in internet searches for suicide prevention and support services, studies following the programme’s initial streaming launch and viewing period pointed to increased searches for suicide method and instruction.

International research found the programme to be associated with higher rates of hospitalisation for self-harm or suicide attempts, and a significant increase in monthly suicide rates among 10-17 year olds in the United States.

Ultimately, series producers agreed to make significant edits to a key scene featuring an extended and graphic depiction of suicide method and death. Additionally, subsequent seasons of the show were guided by expert advice including the addition of help seeking messaging, linked reference material, a coordinated online discussion and greater focus on preventive themes.

Everymind (through the Mindframe program) worked collaboratively with Netflix in the leadup to seasons two and three of the series to support safe communication and conversations around the show’s themes.

Through advanced access to new programme episodes prior to their streaming release, Everymind was able to provide briefings for media and sector to help inform accurate messaging.

Everymind also assisted by providing contact information for key support services for those who may be impacted by the show’s themes, including supports for young people, parents, carers and LGBTIQ+ people on issues such as grief and loss, violence, domestic and sexual abuse and alcohol and other drugs.

Support for audiences watching all seasons of 13 Reasons Why remains recommended.

In The Art of Dying: 21st Century Depictions of Death and Dying, Dr Paton and co-author Dr Tiffany Bodium of the University of Newcastle argue that the case highlights the need for creators to remain mindful of the “delicate balance” between shedding a light on critical social issues and portraying them safely.

“As media increasingly transports public statement and artistic expressions into the hands and homes of millions around the world each day, what and how we say it also matters,” the authors write.

“What do we want our portrayals and statements to be? And what do we want them to say?

“Media, in all its forms, creates a backdrop for social and cultural statements… we know that suicide is a global health concern, and the leading global concern relating to young people. It therefore stands to reason that anything we say about suicide matters greatly.”

Everymind works to support stage and screen professionals in continuing to include portrayals of suicide and mental ill-health that are accurate and authentic.

Mental ill-health and suicide: A Mindframe resource for stage and screen, is a free resource available to all creators. Everymind staff are also available to help creators with development of initial concepts, to provide contextual information, put creators in touch with relevant experts and review scripts and footage to help reduce the risk of harm to vulnerable audiences. Learn more here.

The Art of Dying: 21st Century Depictions of Death and Dying, was edited by Gareth Richard Schott and is accessible via online subscription or for purchase in eBook and hard copy formats.

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