We can talk openly about depression in an honest, responsible way.

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I started experiencing depression early in life, but I was a fairly sheltered child in most regards. Self-harm wasn’t something I had exposure to. I wasn’t a girl who cut herself.

I was a girl who was sinking. The world felt less open, less full of possibilities with each passing year. It felt like I was swimming through a wave into darkness. If I could’ve snapped my fingers and disappeared, I would have.

I wasn’t a girl who cut herself — until I was. I wasn’t a girl who wore long sleeves to hide scarring — until I was. I wasn’t a girl who would take an intentional overdose — until I was.

I saw the movie “Thirteen” when I was a teenager. I still don’t know if that cracked something open in me, or if self-harm was something I’d struggle with regardless. Because I’m someone who experiences emotional dysregulation, I’d be willing to bet the latter is true.

But a few questions remain:

What is the impact of the media on our mental health?

How do we talk about suicide and suicidal ideation in media — particularly online — in a way that helps more than it hurts?

How do we use social media to honor people who have died by suicide, and those who still experience mental illness?

How do we make sure we’re not reaching for an overly simplistic solution?

Here are a few ideas.

When German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther” was published in 1774, there was widespread fear that young men may imitate the act of attempting suicide as written in the book.

Whether this was actually occurring is up for debate, but the book was still banned in most of Europe.

In the 1970s, the term “Werther effect” was coined by researcher David Phillips to describe the influence of suicide depictions in media. This is often referred to nowadays as a “copycat suicide,” which can lead to suicide contagion.

Suicide contagion exists in point clusters and mass clusters.

  • Point clusters unfold in towns or communities when a suicide occurs. This can happen in Indigenous communities, where death-by-suicide rates are among the highest in the world.
  • Mass clusters take place on a broader scale, like when a celebrity or public figure dies. For example, when Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain died by suicide in 2018, there was intense online discussion surrounding the circumstances of their deaths. Mental health experts were concerned it might lead to an uptick in suicide attempts.

After the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” came out, questions arose regarding how the depiction of suicide would affect young people watching.

In fact, 2019 research associates the show with a 28.9 percent increase in suicide rates among U.S. youths aged 10–17.

According to the study, “the findings highlight the necessity of using best practices when portraying suicide in popular entertainment and in the media.”

Researchers at several universities, hospitals, and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) conducted the research. NIMH also funded it.

It is important to note this association is correlational, not necessarily causal. If these deaths were directly or indirectly related to the show, we don’t know for sure.

And, in the digital age, this issue is complicated. Many of us use content warnings on our posts to protect others from being triggered, which I believe is a good practice.

At the same time, Twitter and Instagram can make it difficult for people to reach out by shutting down accounts for mentioning suicide and censoring photos with healed self-harm scars.

As Dese’Rae L. Stage from Live Through This says, this conversation often lacks nuance.

“People tend to share on social media to express themselves, or to find connection,” she says. “Personally, I probably wouldn’t be alive without the internet. I found communities online that made me feel seen when I was very young. Without those communities, I would have continued to feel alone and socially isolated.”

Media guidelines were put in place by the World Health Organization and Canadian Psychiatric Association for journalists. Many of the guidelines are useful in reminding social media users to think critically about what they post and why.

Sharing graphic images, repeating myths, and reposting sensationalized stories can fall under the umbrella of harmful behavior.

Instead, we can all provide accurate information and links to helplines, like the national prevention lifeline, a warmline, or a crisis text line. We can provide links to affordable therapy, and use caution when discussing the suicide of public figures.

We can also stay educated on resources, like #chatSafe, a project with the aim to create a set of evidence-informed guidelines that help young people communicate safely online about suicide.

Questions we can ask ourselves include:

  • How might this post affect a reader who is vulnerable?
  • Is there a way to be safer or more helpful?
  • What if this post goes viral?
  • Who might comment on this, and what might their comments entail?
  • Should commenting be turned off?

This point feels especially relevant.

In the past year, a global pandemic, police brutality, income disparity, and the impacts of climate change came to a head (even though these things are certainly not all new). Because of this, many of us are experiencing mental health issues these days, especially marginalized individuals.

Depression and other mental illnesses have many causes, including genetics and brain chemistry, but our lived experiences and access to basic human necessities are undeniable factors.

Until these needs are met, suicide and suicidal ideation are going to prevail.

Posting about hotlines and “reaching out” is all well and good, but if this isn’t backed up by real action, these gestures are hollow and unsuccessful.

People who experience suicidal ideation, me included, have been reaching out. We need to make sure there is something solid on the other side of that to give us agency and create real change.

Sometimes the right thing to do is leave the conversation and take a breath. This means taking social media breaks and muting, unfollowing, or blocking accounts and keywords that are harmful to us.

Giving young people these tools can help give them insight and autonomy when interacting online.

“I think open lines of communication and room for question asking and difficult conversation is probably more effective than banning things outright,” Stage says.

This is going to continue to be messy and complicated. We’ll make mistakes along the way, we’ll say something wrong or do harm, and we’ll be accountable to that.

But we’ll also learn, grow, and do better the next time. And by remembering this, we can make a difference.

By remembering this, we can save lives.


JK Murphy is a freelance writer and food photographer who is passionate about body politics, mental health, and recovery. She values conversations on difficult topics explored through a comedic lens, and loves making people laugh. She holds a degree in Journalism from the University of King’s College. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.