Logan Paul’s tasteless YouTube stunt shows we still have no idea how to talk about suicide

YouTube star Logan Paul kicked up 2018’s first viral storm after he posted a video of a hanging body in Japan’s Aokigahara forest, more commonly known as the “second most popular place” in the world for suicide.

At the start of Paul’s video, which has since been taken down, he says that his clip is “not clickbait.” And in his two separate apologies since the uproar, he says his intention was to “make a positive ripple on the internet” by having viewers stumble across the same body as he did in the forest.

Paul, however, knew what he was doing when he walked into Aokigahara. In the video’s beginning, he identifies the location as the “Japanese suicide forest.” He also makes jokes about the name.

“I was misguided by shock and awe, as portrayed in the video,” Paul wrote in his first apology on Monday. “One may understand that it’s easy to get caught up in the moment without fully weighing the possible ramifications.”

While Logan offered a more considered apology on Tuesday—”I want to apologize to anyone who has been affected or touched by mental illness… most importantly I want to apologize to the victim and his family”—it’s important to consider why he thought this was a good idea in the first place. Like he said, he went into the forest with “shock and awe,” not to start a larger discussion on suicide prevention, not to explore what brings people to Aokigahara, and certainly not out of respect for the dead man’s struggles or his family.

To be fair, Paul isn’t the first popular figure to capitalize on the internet’s morbid curiosity with death and suicide; subreddits like r/wtf and r/gore have existed much longer. Another YouTuber, Elton Castee, and his friends at TFIL, also did a video detailing their night in a suicide forest, touting that the entire experience is “incredibly scary” for folks watching back home. And of course, 4chan’s /b/ has a lengthy history of sharing the darkest content around on the internet, exposing many lurkers to dead bodies and mangled corpses years before YouTube was part of our vernacular.

However, that this trend of sensationalizing suicide has gone on so long, mostly unchecked, shows there’s a bigger issue at play here. Mainly, one that walks hand-in-hand with the stigmatization around mental illness in American society—one that causes suicidal people to suffer.

“Because of the stigma (the ignorant stigma, mind you) that still exists concerning mental illness, many people who need help do not seek it,” Suicide.org president Kevin Caruso writes on the non-profit’s website. “Many people still stigmatize others because they stupidly hold on to the misguided beliefs of yesteryear that people with mental disorders are weak or just lack willpower.”

To internet users who don’t struggle with debilitating mental illnesses, suicidal people seem “weird.” They’re not so-called “normal” people who can handle the stresses of day-to-day life without wanting to die. This is in part because we live in a world that suggests suicide is a choice, and overcoming mental illness is as simple as choosing not to be sad, worried, or manic. But that trivializes suicide—people cannot simply decide not stop depression, anxiety, and other disorders.

Stigmatization, in turn, encourages society to judge, condemn, and isolate suicidal people. Which can cause suicidal thoughts to become suicidal behaviors.

“The most important thing that we can all do for people who are mentally ill is to get them help as quickly as possible, while we show them as much love and concern as possible,” Caruso explains. “Immediate treatment, without stigma, should be our ultimate objective.”

In reality, there are multiple contributing factors that can raise a person’s risk for suicide. According to Harvard Health Publishing, that includes mood disorders like depression and anxiety, changes in a person’s social support system, a major life crisis, losing a loved one or job, and exposure to suicidal thoughts and actions from friends, colleagues, and even celebrities. In each situation, suicide is a response to a mind that feels overwhelmed. Simply choosing not to be suicidal, in other words, is not how the brain works.

There is also a reason why Aokigahara is a popular suicide destination, but videos like Paul’s and TFIL aren’t about to explain the cultural context as to why. As National Geographic reveals, suicide isn’t stigmatized in Japan, but the country faces less “openness of discussing mental health issues.” In short, that means Japanese people struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts don’t have many places to turn, especially amid the intense cultural pressures of Japanese life. So when life becomes too much to handle, suicide—in a private place, away from family shame of finding the body—is an option when having depression is not.

“The fastest growing suicide demographic is young men. It is now the single biggest killer of men in Japan aged 20-44,” the BBC reveals. “While many older people still enjoy job security and generous benefits, nearly 40 percent of young people in Japan are unable to find stable jobs.”

By publishing a vlog that builds up “suspense” to the body’s reveal and its impact on the Americans visiting Aokigahara, Paul turned suicidal people’s struggles into a spectacle. His video fosters the stigma around suicide by making suicidal thoughts and behaviors into something obscene, instead of a sign that society needs better ways to help people seek out the support they need.

And there are many things people can do to help suicidal people. Suicide.org encourages loved ones to actively listen, be positive, express concern, and never “leave a critically suicidal person alone for even a second.” Talking openly about suicide helps, too. And when expressing support, never espouse judgment or shock. In worst case scenarios, bystanders can call suicide hotlines, local emergency numbers, or even 911.

The sad reality is that these steps are not just incredibly helpful, they’re easy to find on the internet. A quick Google search for “what can you do to help a suicidal person” brings up dozens of sites with resources for helping people experiencing suicidal thoughts. But instead of encouraging viewers to be positive role models, Paul went for the shock value—turning a suicide victim’s body into a prop.

With his video, Paul sent the message, intentionally or not, that suicidal people don’t deserve respect. It’s on us to create a society where no one has to receive that message again.

For more information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) or Samaritans (U.K.).

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