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Copycat Suicides: When Suicidal Narratives Go Too Far

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The national suicide rate has risen steadily in recent decades, making suicide now one of the leading causes of death among young people, accounting for more than 1 in 6 deaths. Research has found a positive correlation between suicidal media depictions and the threats of suicidal behavior in those at risk for suicide, especially among adolescents and young adults. There is stronger evidence for the influence of reports in the news media than in fictional formats; however, several studies have found dramatic effects of televised portrayals that have led to increased rates of copycat suicides, committed and attempted suicides which mimic the accounts or depictions of the original suicide on television and in other media. My research will analyze the content of such suicidal narratives across media platforms and the underlying cause in fluctuations in suicide rates to better understand the messages that result in copycat suicides, specifically in relation to the popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.

It is estimated that around 13 percent of teen suicides are attributed to the pattern of contagion, and because of this, there is a high demand for socially conscious and responsible media production and coverage of mental health issues. This is where the conversation around the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why comes into play. Based on a novel by Jay Asher of the same title, the has received criticism for its legitimizing of the graphic suicide of a teenage girl. In the first season, viewers are introduced to 17-year-old Hannah Baker, who is faced with everyday issues of teenage girls in high school: boys, body image, and disagreements between friends. After following the seven tapes addressed to seven of her at-one-time close friends which explained the “13 reasons why” they were to blame for her death, Hannah’s suicide is revealed in full graphic and detailed glory as viewers watch her slit her wrists and bleed out in a bathtub for three minutes straight, without missing a blinking moment.

In its context, the show itself intended to be a turning point in suicide awareness education and, following this first season’ release, generated a lot of interest and sparked conversation, including debate over consequences on public c. For some viewers, there was hope that the story would create awareness and prevent suicide, while others saw the series as glamorizing the victim and her suicide in a way which instead promoted it. The contagion and exponential rise in copycat suicides and internet searches on “how to kill yourself” that followed give the impression of the latter. It appears that the series became more of an informative artifact for adolescents looking for a way out and was received as a suicide revenge-narrative with no mention of mental health awareness and how to get help, with its lack of sensitivity towards mental health issues as well as the series’ triggering nature that is evident throughout both seasons. A lot of heavy content was depicted throughout the episodes, from graphic suicides to sexual assault and drug use, and it wasn’t until the second season that the creators included a PSA and added a disclaimer before each episode, in addition to one before the first season which was added after the fact.

Did 13 Reasons Why take it too far? Ultimately, it comes down to the way the message is portrayed through suicide related content in the media. The question here is whether there is a right way to cover suicide in the media in a way that it helps its audience rather than harms it. Did Netflix respond the right way by adding disclaimers, and continuing to produce more of the narrative, or should media outlets be more responsible for following guidelines and ensuring preventatives measures when it comes to broadcasting and depicting suicidal narrative?

This study is going to include extensive research on the effects of and motivations behind media contagion across multiple media platforms, specifically as it relates to suicide. The idea of media contagion is the heightened likelihood of media-publicized behaviors to be duplicated by their audience.. This theory is often linked to copycat shooters as is relates to crimes publicized in the news; however, studies have revealed evidence which shows that suicide rates have followed the same pattern. Researchers Madelynn Gould, Patrick Jamison, and Daniel Romer explain the use of the term “contagious” to describe the suicidal depictions in relation to the clusters or epidemics of suicides that have been observed through history. In their research, they review depictions of suicide in news coverage, as well as the fictional dramatization of the act, and compare these artifacts’ effects on suicide rates over time. What they ultimately found was that these suicidal depictions have had the greatest effects on the younger audiences. Although media and suicide contagion are not new phenomena, there has been a recent outbreak of copycat suicides following the release of the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why, and considering this series is approaching its third season, this calls for scrutiny. This series follows a story of high schooler Hannah Baker’s plan for revenge that unfolds following her suicide. Among the public, word quickly began to circulate soon after the first season made its premier that the suicide rates among viewers of a similar demographic to Hannah were rising. Not only did they copy the act, but they also copied the method, many of the victims choosing to leave revenge tapes behind. While many researchers have proven that suicide contagion has in fact occurred surrounding the release of 13 Reasons Why and other media-driven suicide narratives, there is little analysis done to explain what it is about the content and messages of the narrative that caused proportions of the exposed audience to follow suit.

Suicide clusters are what researchers have defined as the effect of suicide contagion. According to researchers Madelyn Gould, Sylvan Wallenstein, and Lucy Davidson, suicide contagion results in “epidemics” or “clusters” in suicides and is often linked to what is known as “assertive-relation”. In her psychological perspective on media contagion, Gould argues that adolescent suicide clusters may be due to “assertive relation”, or the tendency for individuals who identify with another individual’s characteristics, values, or experiences to copy their behaviors. These clusters are what other researchers have used to study the link between media depictions of suicide within news coverage, dramatic fiction, and other forms of media which will be explained below. What these researchers failed to address, however, is the underlying factors as to why certain people take their identification with fictional or real-life suicide victims so far to the extent of following their behaviors, be it psychological, environmental, or another contributor.

There are two theories which stem from historical literature that play an important role in explaining suicide contagion: The Werther Effect and the Papageno Effect. The ‘Werther Effect” comes from the narrative of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther from 1772, where the main character commits suicide for love. This is one of the earliest known associations between depictions of suicidal narratives and suicide rates, which explains how the absence of protective measures and guidelines can trigger suicidal behavior. In opposition, the ‘Papageno Effect’ refers to Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute from 1791, where a young man in love becomes suicidal, but copes well due to his friends’ intervention. A lot of research is available regarding the “Werther Effect” and the negative implications and increased suicide rates following irresponsible media depictions of suicids; however, there is little research conducted that explains media coverage of suicide which has resulted in a positive, adverse effect and a decrease in suicide rates. This comes back to the question as to what it is within the coverage that causes one effect over the other.

With a rise in suicide rates following mainstream media coverage of celebrity suicides, many researchers have questioned whether the exposure to such stimuli actually causes the cluster of suicides, but the presence of a causal relationship between media exposure and an increase in suicidal tendencies and rates is a key aspect to this research. A study was conducted by Daniel Romer and Patrick and Kathleen Jamieson examining the relationship between news coverage of suicide in varying news sources and the frequency of deaths-by-suicide during a 4-month period in 1993. After studying the theory among 3 different age groups, the researchers concluded that suicide contagion is likely the cause of such suicide clusters following news coverage of suicides. Studies have also shown that this does not only occur in America. This trend has been documented among other countries, including Austria, Germany, Australia, and Japan, which contributes to the evidence that suicide stories in the mass media are followed by a significant increase in the number of suicides.

Fictional dramatizations of suicide have also been shown to increase suicide rates, as seen following the release of the first season of 13 Reasons Why. Gould, Jamison, and Romer reference multiple films and television shows, those which depicted suicidal acts, and following their releases resulted in a rise in suicides and hospitalizations for suicide attempts among adolescents. The idea of media contagions does not just fall into the category of following real-life events, but rather actions taken by fictional characters as well, as seen in the way adolescents followed the actions taken by Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why. It’s important to note that while much of the research circulating around contagious suicides are in support of the Werther Effect, revealing that suicide rates increase after suicide depictions, they often fail to cover the content of suicidal depictions in the media which have led to adverse effects. This is an interesting comparison that needs to be further analyzed.

Apart from circulated, real-life stories and fictional stories of suicide, research has also shown that suicidal and self-harming content across social media and search engines have an effect on those who consume it. In a study conducted on suicide conversations in social media environments such as Instagram, analysis of viewer engagement found that suicide-themed posts tend to acquire a higher level of engagement than posts of non-harmful content among the same users.. There is also a theory called the “Filter-Bubble Hypothesis”, which analyzes how search engines can also be harmful towards users with suicidal search thoughts. Search engines, such as google, often based search results on individual users’ past search behavior, location, or demographic in order to optimally connect with a user. The issue with this is that it drives the risk for “partial information blindness.” Search engine algorithms run the risk of filtering out potentially beneficial information, especially for those searching suicidal content, such as preventative results, if the information doesn’t seem to “fit” what they need and can potentially omit the suicide-helpline from the results altogether. Little to no research has been done on the effects of search engines on suicidal tendencies, but this is something that I will explore deeper in my research.

The “dose-response” relationship describes the psychological change in behavior caused by varying levels in exposure to a stimulus. This is one of the reader-characteristics which is explained to be one of the leading factors of “suicide contagion”, as the more viewers are exposed to suicidal depictions, be it in the news, in film and television, or across social platforms, the more likely they are to be triggered by the stimuli and copy such behavior. Gould claims that this is likely the reason adolescent suicide clusters form.

There have been many strategies introduced to study the influence of media on society; however, one of the more prominent is George Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory. The Cultivation Theory has been important in explaining the effects of television viewing, and ultimately suggests that TV is responsible for shaping, or ‘cultivating’ viewers’ conceptions of social reality. It also states that the more time people are exposed to the behaviors and narratives in the television world, the more likely they are to believe reality aligns the messages relayed by television, therefore shaping their overall behaviors. Although not all television viewing is harmful when such viewing promotes positive behaviors, many adverse effects on health can also occur. In order to test this claim, Jon Hammermeister, along with other researchers conducted an empirical study to test of whether television-free individuals and those who followed the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (APA) recommended 2 hours of viewing time presented more positive psychological health when compared to those who watched television more frequently. What they found was that people with moderate to low television viewing habits tend to have higher psychological health and more positive social interactions than those who watch television more than the recommended time.

What I am looking to study is essence of the content and underlying messages of suicidal narratives within the media that contributes to suicide contagion. There is evidence in history that while some media reports and dramatic interpretations of suicide take an irresponsible route and provoke suicidal behaviors, there are others which produce the adverse effect, and instead create positive awareness and a significant reduction in suicide rates. I am looking into the distinction between coverage of narratives that cause the suicide contagion and those which cause the Papageno Effect in order to better understand the signs, semiotics, and messages of such coverage which trigger copycat suicidal behavior.

Much of the data surrounding the suicidal contagion that occurs following media coverage of suicidal narratives, including 13 Reasons Why is empirical, providing evidence that in fact copycat suicidal clusters do form and are likely tied to reader characteristics. What researchers haven’t done is look at the content of these artifacts. What is it within the narratives that magnifies an audience’s identification with the victim to the point of triggering copycat suicidal behaviors. A few researchers have attempted to answer this question regarding suicide contagion from news media reporting, but little to no research has been done following that of fictional suicide narratives, which is the direction I am taking. I plan to do an in-depth content analysis of 13 Reasons Why in order to identify the cause of the Werther effect, as well as collecting specific cases of the contagious suicide attempts and executions that resulted from exposure to the content. In analyzing such content of the show, I will be paying attention to the quantity of suicide-related depictions within the show, as well as the characteristic and semiotics of the harmful content, such as the victims, the suicidal act itself, the causes and effects of the act, and the ways in which the triggering acts are depicted and described. I will also be focusing on any protective measures that are taken or may be lacking within the narrative, such as preventative programs, awareness and attention to mental health disorders, and any mention of supportive services. I will also analyze the use of external disclaimers added by the series creators between the release of the first and second season in order to address the consequences on public health, and whether the precautionary measures they took were enough to reduce suicide rates. With this, I can compare it to other circulated stories of suicide victims that did in fact have positive implications on suicide rates.

To conduct the above procedures, I need to gain access to the episodes of both seasons that have already been released and are currently available from streaming on Netflix. This will need to be my first step in order to begin my analysis of the content in comparing to other suicidal depictions in the media. I have already begun collecting some of the recent cases of copycat suicides that mimic the act depicted in the series, but I will continue to accumulate more as they occur, and as the series becomes increasingly relevant with the upcoming release of its third season. Once this proposal is approved and I conduct the series content analysis as described above, the first draft of my research will be completed by the third week in February and will continue to be revised and submitted weekly until the 5th of April. My research abstract to promote the presentation of my research will be submitted the Tuesday of the following week, followed by the outline and media aid I plain to use for the presentation. My research will be presented on April 15th, and final draft and completed project will submitted during the last week of April.

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