Navigating mental health in media

Zoe Stratos | opinions editor

Oct. 14, 2021

This column contains sensitive topics such as mental health and suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with negative thoughts or suicidal feelings, resources are available to help. Please reference the back page for resources and support groups.

Over the summer, popular rapper Kid Cudi posted to his Instagram about his long-time struggle with depression. It opened up a conversation many are hesitant to participate in, or even share about themselves.

The post read:

“Sadness eats away at me sometimes. How do I deal? A lot of you hit me and ask how I get through. Truthfully, I don’t know. Some days are great, others not so great. I just try to believe God has something better for me. I try to have faith in the light. Please, believe.”

After the release of his album “Man on the Moon III” in December, people across the country found solace in his music; They felt like they weren’t alone — and the post only strengthened that concept.

People like Pete Davidson hailed Cudi and his messages through music. Diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 2017, the SNL comedian admitted that without the “Man on the Moon III” album, he wouldn’t be here.

Most of our focus for the past two years has been on the Covid-19 pandemic, when there’s been another epidemic plaguing the globe for much longer. Known as more of a taboo in our culture, it’s time we put a spotlight on suicidality, especially as it becomes more prevalent on our screens.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for all ages in the United States, and the second leading cause of death for ages 10–34 in 2019.

Suicide is a major contributor to premature mortality, the CDC says. Recent reports have documented a steady increase in suicide rates over the past two decades, but thankfully so far we’ve seen a slight decrease from 2018 to 2019. Data for 2020 has not been released yet.

Whether it be in movies, TV, music or even just the news, suicidality is always around us. There’s a right and wrong way to go about it, but these conversations are important to keep the trends heading downward. 

Back in 2017, the popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why took the nation by storm with its graphic depictions of bullying, self harm and suicide. 

Educators and psychologists warned of the chance of copycat suicides due to the show’s graphic nature, and they ended up being warranted.

In the month following the show’s debut in March, there was a 28.9% increase in suicide among Americans ages 10-17, according to a study done by the National Institutes of Health. The number of suicides was greater than that seen in any month over the five year period examined. 

Though researchers said their study cannot prove causation, it makes you wonder about the effect of these types of shows on vulnerable youth. Coupled with pressures at home, at school and on social media, it’s a recipe for disaster.

“We have to be really mindful of the messages we’re sending out. And then the intended audience: Maybe somebody who’s more mature can watch a show and be able to take away the message, but somebody younger, they can idealize it instead of challenge it,” said Rachel Kallem Whitman, a psychology professor at Duquesne.

Knowing that these conversations and portrayals are vital, the media need to be mindful of how they display it, and us too, as we consume it. 

According to Whitman, media literacy is one of the best ways to prevent receiving the wrong message.

“We need to be able to educate people, starting at a really young age, to critically look at this stuff. Let’s look at this portrayal, let’s unpack it a little bit, and not necessarily take it as the solid truth. A lot of us when we watch media are like ‘it’s on TV, it has to be right,’” Whitman said.

Providing these tools and support groups allows for more positive responses from vulnerable kids and teens.

On the flip side of things, media organizations must do better with reporting on suicide. When Avicii died by suicide in 2018, reporters from the U.S. and other countries, including his home country of Sweden, wrote many stories regarding the DJ’s life, family and death.

In Sweden, the articles focused on the family’s privacy, while in the US, TMZ released a full breakdown of the graphic details of his death. Where should we draw the line?

It’s important that we give a spotlight to these moments to educate and to mourn for those who have struggled, but we need to know the right language to use, and to allow for their and their family’s privacy.

“For a long time the language we used was ‘committed suicide,’ and a lot of people have problems with that. Committed. When you say that, it kind of sounds like you’re committing a crime. If you’re creating the association that if you are suicidal, it’s unethical, that’s not helpful,” Whitman said.

As a media organization, and first and foremost an ethical person, we must tread lightly around the topic, but be capable of talking about it in a way that’s inclusive — whether you’re white, Black, Indingenous or have a physical or mental disability.

Moving forward out of the Covid pandemic, there’s so many ways to clear out the suicide epidemic. Look to nonprofit organizations, support groups and even media to garner a sense of community and belonging. Even though media perpetuates suicidality, it can also prevent it, as long as we use trigger warnings.

It’s never easy to tread through the murky waters of mental health, and my column only touches the surface of it, but if we move forward treating it with care, the trends can continue downward.