Monday, September 16, 2013

Suicide Portrayals and "Suicide Contagion" are not a Frivolous, Comic Concern

By Michael J. Fitzpatrick, NAMI Executive Director

It’s a safe bet that few people start the day expecting to protest a comic book. Unfortunately, that’s what happened last week after DC Comics announced a “talent search” for an additional artist for the upcoming launch of a Harley Quinn comic book.

Harley Quinn is a fictitious super-villain and sidekick to one of Batman’s arch-enemies, the Joker. She’s about to get her own comic book in November. The problem is that DC Comics invited aspiring artists to submit for four panels  that end with “Harley sitting naked in a bathtub with toasters, blow dryers, blenders, appliances all dangling above the bathtub and she has a cord that will release them all…the  moment before the inevitable death.” Apparently, the panels are intended to be a momentary dream sequence, but the imagery crossed a line with many comic book fans. Ironically, it also coincided with National Suicide Awareness Prevention Month.

NAMI and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) quickly joined to condemn the talent search’s theme and imagery. The issue was not simply the company’s insensitivity to millions of individuals and families who have been traumatized by a suicide attempt or lost someone to suicide.

“We know from research that graphic and sensational depictions of suicide can contribute to contagion,” declared the joint statement

“Contagion” is sometimes called the “copycat” effect. A news story or media portrayal can influence a vulnerable person to already vulnerable person to act.

In Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, Kay Redfield Jamison noted that places and methods can become “suicide magnets.” When a local newspaper reports for example that a certain mountain cliff has been the site of several recent suicides, others may be drawn to it—unless the newspaper is careful how the story is presented.

It’s not a new concern. Over a decade ago, AFSP, NAMI and others developed Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide. Although developed primarily for the news media, they apply in principle to the entertainment industry.

  • There are almost always multiple causes for suicide, including psychiatric illnesses that may not have been recognized or treated Avoid reporting that death by suicide was preceded by a single event, such as a recent job loss, divorce or bad grades.
  • Avoid sensational headlines or putting expert opinions in a sensationalistic context. Don’t quote first responders about possible causes.
  • Avoid photos or videos of the location or method of a suicide death or of grieving family members and friends or memorials and funerals.
  • Inform readers about general suicide facts, warning signs and treatment options. Include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).

DC Comics has apologized “to anyone offended.” By the end of the week, they initiated a dialogue with AFSP, NAMI and APA. We’ll now have to see what the first issue of the book presents in the four panels when it is published in November. There are no promises, but they at least have been sensitized.

We don’t think DC Comics intended to offend or were even aware of “suicide contagion” as a concern. Unfortunately, they aren’t alone. That’s why we encourage everyone to become familiar with the reporting guidelines, to refer editors and reporters to them, and cite them in letters to editors or other public statements.

 It is not just NAMI making the recommendation—but also the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institute of Mental Health, (NIMH) and other leading institutions in both the mental health community and communications industry.

Everyone can make a difference by educating others. One of the most inspiring aspects of the DC Comics protest was that comic book fans themselves sounded the first alarm—through posts on the company’s own Facebook web page, as well as ours. It has truly been a grassroots protest.


Anonymous said...

This is because Harley Quinn is part of a group of Anti-Heros called the Suicide Squad. This group dates back to comics of the early 1980s, so why all the concern now? While this is a sensitive issue, I think this is far, far overblown. You dont see anyone dressing like a black flying mammal and fighting vigilant justice, do you? Where is the Batman Contagion?

stone said...

It sounds very interesting and the image is ...... amazing.

cleaner said...

Sounds like bad timing from DC comics during suicide prevention month.

Professor said...

I don't really know when many people first crossed the line to think that suicide or mental illness is a source of entertainment, but unfortunately many have and continue to do so. The struggle to educate and sensitize people to the issues surrounding the devastation and pain that suicide and a mental disease can cause is never ending. Thanks to everyone who takes the time to speak up when things are said and done to further hurt those already hurting with these problems. The members of NAMI and many other organizations take up this tremendous challenge to speak for those who often can't or won't speak up for themselves on these matters. My thanks go out to all who do and I pray that you will continue. God Bless!!

Melissa said...

Thank you for this informative and sensitive piece.

Anonymous said...

Keep their feet to the fire! Only 40 more signatures needed!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link, Anon

Anonymous said...

This Suicide Contagion idea rings true in my experience. Right now, reading about this comic just annoys me. But when I was really depressed, if I hadn't already come up with that idea, I would have added it to my list of possible ways to die. Actually, that did happen because I saw a similar idea in a movie. When I was really depressed and struggling, I wished movies came with warnings if the suicide subject was going to come up, because I wasn't in good shape to deal with it.

Anonymous said...

Suicide should never be a source of entertainment. Just ask a Survivor of Suicide (one who lost a loved one to suicide is termed a survivor). I am a survivor. The imagery that is seared into my brain is very real as I was forced to witness it. Using this as a source of entertainment reading does desensitize and keeps the stigma alive and well. I hope the stigma dies in my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

Trash and violence sells in a society that glorifies violence especially through social media. What do you expect when our moral and spiritual base has all but been wiped out. Anything can sell. Shame on D.C. Comics!!!

Sheryl said...

Suicide portrayed in comic book form? Is there ever constraint in what is entertaining to the masses? People who do put this out for view haven't a clue of what it does to others. Their insensitivity to the human condition as a whole is shocking and limitless as it appears constantly. I find the the almighty dollar trumps good judgment at each and every turn.