question of the day: Why has the depiction of suicide in movies tripled over the past half century?

From a report by The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania [PDF]:

Popular PG-13 Movies Increasingly Portray Suicidal Behavior; No Difference in Highly Explicit Suicide Between R- AND PG-13-Rated Films

PHILADELPHIA – Annenberg Public Policy Center research analyzing 855 top box-office films from 1950 to 2006 shows that the portrayal of explicit and graphic suicide has tripled over that time. It also found no difference in the most explicit portrayals in films rated PG-13 versus those rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) since 1985. The study, authored by Patrick E. Jamieson and Dan Romer, was published in the August 2011 issue of Archives of Suicide Research.

To illustrate the change in the portrayal of suicide from before the MPAA ratings system was introduced in 1968 to the present, consider the 1956 film “Rose Tattoo.” This film typifies the treatment of suicide in the plots of films before 1968. The film only includes a single verbal reference to suicide. By contrast, the PG-13 movie “The Grudge,” released in 2004, shows a man pushing himself off a high-rise balcony and his lifeless head splayed on the ground surrounded by blood.

“Our earlier work confirmed that modeling of suicide in media can increase the incidence of suicide,” noted study lead author Patrick E. Jamieson. “While we cannot establish a causal connection here, it is interesting to note that the tripling of U.S. teen suicide since 1960 coincided with this increase in movie suicide portrayal. We know as well that exposure to movie-portrayed suicide correlates with thinking that one cannot get effective treatment for mental health problems. There is something seriously wrong with a movie ratings system that attaches a PG-13 rating to a movie containing explicit, graphic modeling of suicide.”

(Via To Write Love on Her Arms, a suicide prevention organization.)

There’s a lot of stuff going on here, from the MPAA’s apparent rubber-stamping of violence to the idea that suicide can be a copycat event. Feel free to discuss those if you like, but I’d like to focus on one aspect:

Why has the depiction of suicide in movies tripled over the past half century?

Is it just that violence overall has increased in movies since 1950? Have we become a more despairing society since then? (If the depiction of suicide is not a causation of suicide, that could be an explanation for the rise in both depictions of suicide and actual suicides.) Is there something else at work?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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