Two and a half years after Netflix sparked a global controversy with its depiction of teen suicide in 13 Reasons Why, mental health experts say the streaming service made progress with The Politician, but the continued portrayal of high schoolers killing themselves — no matter what precautions are taken — is in itself dangerous.
“I think the show is an example of somebody trying to figure out how to tell this story in a way that is not as problematic as many other depictions have been,” Chris Bright, director of public training for the LGBTQ suicide prevention organization the Trevor Project, said. “But I think a key problem that we're facing with a lot of content today is that, graphically or less graphically, depictions of suicide are just not particularly safe.”
Nearly halfway through the first episode of Ryan Murphy’s satirical series, high school student River Barkley (David Corenswet) suddenly kills himself. His death sets the tone for the rest of the season, shaping the cutthroat school election and life decisions made by the show’s main protagonist, the hypercompetitive Payton Hobart (Ben Platt).
Suicidal ideation is a running theme in the episode from the first five minutes, when River sits alone at a dining room table holding a gun, from a scenes in which he contemplates different methods of killing himself, to when, as a candidate for class president, he speaks about his thoughts of suicide to an auditorium full of his peers.
A warning ahead of the episode states: “The Politician is a comedy about moxie, ambition, and getting what you want at all costs. But for those who struggle with their mental health, some elements may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”
Twenty-five minutes later, there’s the gunshot, then a scene shows Payton, standing right in front of River, splattered with blood. The actual act isn’t shown, unlike in the first season of 13 Reasons Why, which portrayed the graphic suicide of high schooler Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). Still, mental health experts said The Politician’s version was problematic.
“Maybe they felt that was enough of a pullback, but it was still pretty gruesome,” Bright said. “There was still blood splattered on Ben Platt’s character, and I would say that for all intents and purposes, it still counts as showing or depicting a suicide, even though they cut the camera away.”
But Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, which advised Netflix on the The Politician, said he thinks the depiction of River's suicide is an improvement from 13 Reasons Why and “probably not dangerous.” Whether it’s problematic, he added, “is in the eye of the beholder.”
“I think that it's important, obviously, for people in the entertainment industry to be sensitive to the fact that all kinds of people are going to bring all kinds of perspectives when looking at material like this,” Gionfriddo told BuzzFeed News. “But I would say that it's hard to please and satisfy 100% of the people 100% of the time. Suicide is a very serious subject and it deserves serious attention, even when being included in a satirical setting, but I think the important thing really is to put the warning out there.”
Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer of the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on suicide prevention for young people, doesn’t think The Politician glamorizes suicide, but he worries that there’s a “social norming” problem with stories about suicide in pop culture.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, with more than 47,000 suicides in 2017 and an estimated 1.4 million attempts. A 2019 report from the Trevor Project also found that 39% of LGBTQ youths seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months.
The issue with portraying a graphic suicide onscreen is the fear of suicidal ideation or contagion, which means viewers who are exposed to depictions of suicide may imitate what they see in media. Experts say this is a particular concern when it comes to content aimed at young people.
Before airing the third season of 13 Reasons Why, Netflix announced it was removing the Season 1 scene that showed Hannah’s suicide. The decision was applauded by viewers, fans, and mental health organizations, but it came only after heavy criticism, including from parents who said the show influenced their children to kill themselves.
“Clearly, [Netflix] has become more aware of and sensitive to these issues, which in and of itself is a good thing, but it's a really hard thing to portray in a way that's completely unproblematic," Schwartz said.
A spokesperson for Netflix told BuzzFeed News that producers for the show met with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention while creating the show in order to “get their advice on how to tell River’s story in the most responsible way.”
Netflix also added the warning under the advice of the AFSP and Mental Health America, the spokesperson added.
“I think The Politician is interesting, and it definitely raises a lot of questions about whether there’s a way to talk about someone dying by suicide and someone’s mental health without glamorizing it and without making it seem like that person gets to make decisions or impact people after their death,” Bright said.
Throughout the rest of the season, Payton has mental health issues of his own and never properly addresses the trauma of witnessing River’s suicide. River also continues to make appearances on the show by coming to Payton as a hallucination after his death.
Gionfriddo said he does understand why some people might have an issue with River’s character reappearing throughout the season, even after his death, because it could “suggest that suicide is impermanent.” But ultimately, Mental Health America stands behind Netflix’s portrayal because there's “nothing that really glamorized it or sensationalized it.”
“We felt quite comfortable that this is not a show that ought to be considered the radical extreme kind of show you need to worry about in terms of triggering suicide,” Gionfriddo said.
According to Schwartz and Bright, the ideal way to address suicide on television involves a positive overall message and outcome for a character who has mental health issues.
“I would love if a show like The Politician showed someone who was struggling with their mental health, maybe considering suicide, maybe even have developed the plan for how they would kill themselves, but then get help, get support, and show what their life is like when they get that support,” Bright said. “Sometimes people are thinking of suicide, but we can show that there are options out there for them to seek help and maybe get to a place where they're feeling a lot better.”
Schwartz agreed, saying story arcs that show a character going through this trajectory actually helps viewers who are having suicidal thoughts.
“Seeing the fact that people can have hard times — they can have very difficult moments, but if they get support and help to get through it, they can come out the other end OK and keep working at their life,” Schwartz said. “And that's a positive thing.”