Health: What's your teen watching? Signs parents should watch out for

By  Shraddha Uchil | Mumbai | Posted  15-May-2017

As a TV show spurs outrage for its graphic portrayal of a teenager taking her life, experts debate copycat deaths, and signs parents should watch out for

A 17-year-old girl slits her wrists in a bathtub and dies in a pool of blood. But, before doing this, she makes 13 cassette tapes, and goes on to blame the 13 people she holds responsible for her taking the extreme step, including her former best friend, school counsellor, and the boy who raped her.

Although this may not sound so far-fetched in a world where people are live streaming their deaths for all to see, this is, in fact, the plot of a Netflix show titled 13 Reasons Why. Hugely popular, it has raised concerns, especially in the US, from parents and educators who are worried that the show justifies the act, and that vulnerable children might end their own lives in similar fashion.

But, are shows and movies really capable of inducing copycat suicides? With the WHO's theme of 2017's World Health Day campaign being depression, there's no better time to throw light on this subject.

Hannah Baker's suicide is shown in graphic detail on the show. Pic Courtesy/Netflix
Hannah Baker's suicide is shown in graphic detail on the show. Pic Courtesy/Netflix

Why so glamorous?
Filmmakers, authors, and the media often tend to glamourise the act, which is problematic. Take for example, Bollywood films Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), and the more recent Ishaqzaade (2012), both of which ended with its lead characters taking their lives.

"We have seen an increase in cases when such movies or shows are released, or even when there is a highly publicised suicide," says psychiatrist Dr Sagar Mundada. The recent case of a college student in Mumbai live streaming his suicide on Facebook also followed a string of similar cases that had made news this year.

Dr Seema Hingoranny
Dr Seema Hingoranny

Dr Seema Hingoranny, a clinical psychologist and trauma researcher, says, "I've had teens come in with the thought that if they end their lives, they will transform into spirits. These are ideas they get from movies."

There's a term to refer to the phenomenon where a highly publicised suicide results in more such deaths — it's called the Werther Effect. "However, it's difficult to attribute the cause to just this. Youngsters are exposed to so much more. So, while the so-called inspiration has always been around in some form or the other, now, the number of avenues to seek them out are more," says Dr Mundada, who counsels students across SoBo schools. On an average, he receives about 10 cases of young people with suicidal tendencies every month.

A cautionary tale
According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, youth (18 to 30 years) are the most vulnerable when it comes to suicides; students made up 6.7 per cent of suicide cases reported in 2015.

Dr Sagar Mundada
Dr Sagar Mundada

Twenty-one-year-old Ria Kapoor (name changed for privacy), who lives in Mumbai, tried to kill herself last year after a bad spat with the person she was in a relationship with. "That day, I was under a lot of stress because my exams were approaching, too. That led to a migraine, and I ended up popping one painkiller. We watch so many movies and TV shows where they show someone popping pills, so the idea was already in my head. One quickly turned to two, and a few minutes later, I had swallowed the entire strip," she shares. Luckily for Kapoor, she survived, and has been in therapy since. Not everyone is as lucky. "Vulnerable teens who watch this don't think about the fact that if they try this and succeed, there's no going back," says Dr Mundada.

That said, what you watch can also be good for you. Dr Mundada says, "In the last few years, we've had more young people seeking help, because the taboo associated with it is slowly going away. In fact, a lot of people came in for help after the release of SRK and Alia Bhatt starrer Dear Zindagi."

Parents, watch 
out for these signs

  • Ask what's wrong if your child shows sudden academic disinterest, or has started eating too much or too little.
  • If you see cuts or suspicious looking marks on their body, don't dismiss it or yell at them.
  • If the child is spending too much time online or reading material that has to do with suicide, it's cause for worry.

Dr Seema Hingoranny

Teens, remember

  • If you watch a show or movie and identify with a character who kills himself, speak to friends or family. 

Seek help.

  • Suicide is never a heroic or romantic act.
  • Suicide is never the fault of others. Don't go by what the show portrays.

jedfoundation.org

Suicide games
There are online groups that venerate suicide. Recently, a game called Blue Whale was being held responsible for over 130 suicides in Russia. As per reports, a player does a series of tasks (cutting themselves, listening to a song), with the final task being killing themselves.