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BMJ: 13 reasons why we need tougher TV rules

According to a research paper by The BMJ media guidelines surrounding televised suicide should be strengthened

According to The BMJ televising suicide in a confronting way has been shown to have harmful effects on viewers

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According to The BMJ televising suicide in a confronting way has been shown to have harmful effects on viewers

Brigid Dix, Reporter

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Media guidelines about televised portrayals of suicide should be strengthened, implemented and enforced, according to a group of professors from the Medical University of Vienna who conducted a study recently published by the British Medical Journal.

The study focused the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why. The show depicts Hannah, a 17-year-old girl, who kills herself and leaves 13 tapes explaining why she did it. A final episode includes the scene of Hannah killing herself and the show’s producers have copped a lot of backlash from the media, schools and parents because of the graphic nature of the scene. Some schools issued warnings to parents to speak with their children after watching the episode to check if they were okay.

Associate Professor Benedikt Till, one of the researchers involved, believes showing the suicide so graphically can have harmful effects on those who watch it.

“Explicit portrayals of suicide methods and portraying suicide as the only option to cope with severe problems, both was the case in 13 Reasons Why, can have harmful effects on the audience and should be restricted,” he said.

According to the media guidelines surrounding reporting acts of suicide, information should not be shown or presented if it may lead to being imitated by others. However, for television series or movies there are no set guidelines, only recommendations. According to Associate Professor Till, “Many aspects of the series did not comply with current media recommendations for suicide portraying.”

The BMJ study found that after the show aired there was a clear spike in suicide ideation. What is perhaps even more worrying is that some people will go as far as to imitate a character’s suicide.

In the research paper an example is presented of this happening in the 1980s in Germany.  In a German television series called Tod eines Schulers (Death of A Student), there was a graphic scene of a young man committing suicide. Although the series focused on the reasons why he did it, outlining significant social conflict, after the show aired there was a sudden rise in suicide acts involving trains among young men aged 15-19.

So, is it possible to raise and address the issue of suicide in a television series or film responsibly and in way that may deter copycat acts? Professor Till believes the focus needs to be different.

“There is certainly the need to change the conversation surrounding suicide, particularly to include more discussion of prevention,” he said.

It’s not only the storylines that need to be changed, he also believes that the experts need to talk with television and film producers about what should be shown. “It may also be beneficial to offer media training for the film entertainment industry and independent pre-testing of film contents to ensure that is safe,” he added.

Here in Australia we have an institute doing just that. The Hunter Institute of Mental Health helps raise awareness of those in the media about issues to consider when reporting suicide and mental illnesses. It manages Mindframe, an initiative focused on educating journalists and editors, as well as journalism and public relations students and even lecturers on how to properly report and discuss mental health, suicide and mental illness.

According the Mindframe website: “For over 10 years, the media sector has been actively involved in working with Mindframe and the suicide prevention and mental health sectors, in helping to promote suicide prevention and addressing stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness.

“Suicide reports, when made, are usually presented with care to minimise the pain for relatives and friends. Most media try to ensure that suicide is not portrayed as a way to solve personal problems or glamorised in any way.”

On the topic of  media guidelines, Professor Till said his teams recommendations would not mean suicide won’t be reported on or discussed in television shows and or movies.

“It is important to keep in mind that not all suicide related media content is harmful. On the contrary, recent research suggests that portrayals of individuals successfully overcoming their suicidal crises can potentially decease suicidal ideation and suicides in the population,” he said.

It’s not about disregarding the issue of suicide completely in shows and movies, it’s about addressing it in a way that makes people realise it’s an issue, but that won’t make people imitate it.

If you or anyone you know is going through a hard time and needs help you can call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 to get support or you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14. Both websites also have online chat forums available if you’d rather not make a phone call.

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BMJ: 13 reasons why we need tougher TV rules