Study criticizes TV films about teen suicides

November 07, 1990|By Jean Latz Griffin | Jean Latz Griffin,Chicago Tribune

Some TV movies that dramatize teen-age suicides in hopes of shedding light on the problem and discouraging other adolescents from ending their lives actually may have just the opposite effect, particularly on troubled teens, according to a new study.

Researchers at Columbia University's Department of Child Psychiatry in New York analyzed the content of several made-for-TV movies on teen-age suicide and found that many of them portrayed the teen-ager so positively that he or she could become a role model for teens who already were contemplating suicide.

Some suicides were presented in so much detail that the movies almost became "how to" episodes. Minor problems were presented as the reason otherwise happy children committed suicide, while the serious mental problems that most often accompany suicide were downplayed or ignored, the study said.

"Teen-agers who succeeded at killing themselves were portrayed as stronger, more likable people than those who attempted suicide but lived," said Dr. Daniel Castellanos, who presented his findings at a meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Chicago Downtown Marriott Hotel.

"In one movie, the boy who killed himself was the football quarterback, was rich, had a girlfriend and his own car," Castellanos said. "But another boy who attempted suicide and survived was portrayed as a nerd, a loner, someone without friends."

In another movie, Castellanos said, a boy and girl killed themselves with carbon monoxide in a garage. The depiction of the suicide was so graphic that others easily could imitate it. In one film, a boy killed himself after receiving low scores on a college entrance examination.

Suicide ranks behind accidents as the second leading cause of death among people from 15 to 24 years of age.

Castellanos said his researchers interviewed experts in adolescent suicide and examined previous research to develop a list of factors that could trigger an attempt at suicide by a teen-ager who already was predisposed to such an act.

A team of 30 raters watched about a dozen movies and rated them on which factors were present.

Negative factors most often found in the movies included detailed descriptions of how to commit suicide and portrayal of suicide victims as attractive and popular.

Little emphasis was given to the fact that most teen-age suicide victims are chronically troubled and unhappy. In fact, the reasons given in the movies for suicide were trivial and oversimplified, such as a low grade.

Also, few of the TV movies showed the harmful consequences of suicide attempts, such as disfigurement, paralysis and brain damage. The movies portrayed suicide as a way of becoming famous or taking revenge. Few successful treatments of teen-age depression or suicidal inclinations were shown. Those who tried to help were portrayed as naive or uncaring.

Castellanos said the movies also put too much blame for the teen's suicide on surviving family members and friends, fostering undeserved guilt.

"Some teen-agers have distorted emotions, and at the moment they try to commit suicide, really believe that it is a rational solution to something like being angry," Castellanos said. "Those teens could be adversely affected by such movies."

Castellanos' project was funded by the American Suicide Foundation.

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