The theory of suicide contagion explains how depictions of suicide in the media may increase the risk of suicide among certain populations.
A still from Logan Paul's video of the Aokigahara Forest [Image by YouTube]
YouTube star Logan Paul posted a video taken in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, also known as the suicide forest, wherein a staggering number of people have taken their own lives. Paul and his group of friends came across the corpse of a man who, according to Paul’s own assessment, had only recently committed suicide. Paul then went on to film the corpse, even putting a still of the corpse as the video’s thumbnail. All the while, he and his friends had what were perceived to be humorous and disrespectful reactions.
The video stayed up on YouTube for hours, gaining over 6 million views and over 600,000 likes, before Paul himself took it down after a deluge of backlash. People from all walks of life, including celebrities and Paul’s fellow YouTubers, have taken the popular vlogger to task over this display of egregious insensitivity.
The Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why has been controversial due to its subject matter. [Image by Beth Dubber/Netflix]
However, there’s an entire other component to this issue that needs to be addressed. There have been several people, among them YouTubers as well, who have explained why what Paul did was wrong. Not only did Paul continue filming when he found the suicide victim’s corpse, but he edited and posted the video seemingly without thought to the ramifications of the act, and left it up on his channel for hours in spite of the backlash.
Paul then issued a first “self-praising apology”, which itself garnered intense criticism. Afterward, he managed to somehow eke out a more sincere-seeming apology video.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of this situation that needs to be addressed is suicide contagion. This phenomenon sees a spike in suicides after exposure to the act, which includes depictions of such in various media. Critics have said that the popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, in which the central character commits suicide, may glamorize or rationalize suicide as a legitimate course of action. The graphic depiction of the lead character’s suicide has led to a number of studies examining the show’s effects, with one study concluding that Google searches for suicide-related terms spiked since the show went on air. Experts say that the theory of suicide contagion already has a long history.
The inclusion of information on crisis hotlines is crucial.
"Images can be very powerful,” says suicide risk and prevention expert Madelyn Gould. “They can get stuck in your head.” Following this, it stands to reason that depictions of suicide, at the very least, should be sensitive and handled with utmost care.
However, not all depictions or discussions of suicide can lead to contagion. According to the Papageno effect, stories of people who have had suicidal thoughts but were able to find ways to cope and survive have lead to a decrease in suicide rates. The media, which have considerable sway, can have a positive effect by including resources meant to help those having suicidal thoughts.
Thus, perhaps there’s something to be gained from the Logan Paul debacle, at least in terms of how media personalities should handle very sensitive topics.
If you feel that you are in need of help, here is a list of crisis lines around the world.
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