Suicide Prevention and the Power of the Media
Last month, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a study that claims that a 2017 song by the American hip hop artist, Logic, may have contributed to an actual reduction of suicides during the time when the song was receiving the most public attention. The song, titled “1-800-273-8255,” is named after the phone number to the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and features singers Alessia Cara and Khalid. The song is certified quintuple platinum with more than five million downloads and streams, and the music video has been viewed more than 432 million times on YouTube.
The music video depicts a high school kid grappling with his feelings about his homosexuality, issues with self and peer acceptance, and bullying. Logic sketches out the problem, presenting a question to the listener: “I been on the low, I been taking my time. I feel like I’m out of my mind, it feel like my life ain’t mine. Who can relate?” The chorus comes in with a painful confession: “I don’t wanna be alive, I just wanna die today. I just wanna die and let me tell you why.”
He goes on, “I’ve been praying for somebody to save me, no one’s heroic, and my life don’t even matter. I know I’m hurting deep down but can’t show it. I never had a place to call my own, I never had a home, ain’t nobody callin’ my phone.”
The music video shows a tormented youth with tears streaming down his face and a pistol in his hand. He stands, he sits, he paces back and forth and falls to his knees with his face in his hands. He clutches the gun, and he trashes his own bedroom. He points the gun at the reflection of himself in the mirror and then he points the gun at his head. The music provides a background choir of oohs while a single voice repeats the line “I just want to live.”
The prospects are looking grim until a variation of the chorus offers the alternative to the afflicted: “I want you to be alive, you don’t gotta die, now lemme tell you why.” The young man is then seen in a different situation, still visibly distraught, but this time with a cell phone in his hand looking at a scrap of paper, ostensibly with the suicide prevention hotline phone number on it. He dials the number and brings the phone to his ear.
The lyrics continue: “Pain don’t hurt the same, I know. The lane I travel feels alone, but I’m moving ‘til my legs give out. I see my tears melt in the snow, but I don’t wanna cry. I don’t wanna cry anymore, I wanna feel alive. I don’t even wanna die anymore.” The video cuts to the future, the young man has now grown and is standing front and center at his own wedding. The video concludes as he is seen hand in hand with his romantic partner surrounded by friends and family in an awe-inspiring scene of acceptance, inclusion, and love.
Inspirational fictitious stories make us feel good, but researchers wanted to find out if the impact goes further. The BMJ study gathered data based around three interrelated events: the April 2017 release of the song, an August 2017 MTV Video Music Awards performance, and a January 2018 Grammy Awards performance. The researchers sought out social media activity in the United States containing the keywords “Logic” and “1-800-273-8255” to determine the timespan of the greatest public attention surrounding these three events.
Next, researchers collected the total number of daily calls to the suicide prevention hotline and obtained the number of recorded suicides from January 2010 to December 2018. After they crunched the numbers, the results appear to be impressive. Using what they call an “interrupted time series analysis,” researchers looked at 34 specific days where they think the song was having the greatest impact based on the increased public attention.
The song generated more than 80,000 tweets on the social media platform, Twitter, from more than 55,000 unique users. Researchers compared the expected number of calls based on previous data to the days surrounding the release of the song, the MTV Video Music Awards, and the Grammy Awards performance. They found an increase of nearly 10,000 unique calls over the 34 days, an increase of 6.9 percent.
Recorded suicides were down 5.5 percent, amounting to an estimated decrease of 245 suicides compared the expected amount based on the baseline data. The results of this study are somewhat predictable according to the phenomenon known as the Papageno Effect. When media sources, whether the news, books, movies, or music, represent suicide with a focus on hope and recovery, research has shown there can be a protective benefit. Sometimes, people on the brink who hear the song by Logic will decide against killing themselves, just like Papageno in the opera “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, who is suicidal and then convinced not to kill himself.
Just as responsibly reported mental health issues have been observed to help lower suicide rates, sensationalized and irresponsible media on the subject has been shown to increase suicides, possibly due to a copycat suicide phenomenon known as the Werther Effect.
The Werther Effect gets its name after the 1774 novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by the German novelist, Goethe. Supposedly, young impressionable readers killed themselves in a similar fashion as described in the novel, even with a copy of the book sometimes found at the scene.
The Lancet, an independent medical journal and public health authority, gives some recommendations on responsible reporting about self-harm, specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a January 2021 article titled “Reporting on suicidal behavior and COVID-19 – need for caution,” the authors write that media sources should avoid the following: speculation about rising suicides rates, sensationalizing or oversimplifying relevant context, and alarmist language such as surge, spike, or crisis. They recommend media sources should take opportunities to promote the importance of mental health, highlight different sources of support, and tell stories about people who have recovered from mental health problems.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, please call 1-800-273-8255. The Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States.