Mental health experts are condemning Netflix’s Gwyneth Paltrow-starring series The Politician for its portrayal of suicide. Debuting on the streamer in September, the series, which also stars Jessica Lange and Lucy Boynton, depicts the fictional suicide of student River Barkley (David Corenswet) in the first episode, which one expert called “gratuitously distressing content.”
Spoilers ahead for Season 1 of The Politician.
Centering on student Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), who is determined to become student body president at his high school, the series also depicts the mental health struggles of his opponent, River, who within the first five minutes of the series sits down at a table with a gun contemplating suicide. Midway through the episode, River takes his own life.
Although the suicide itself is not shown on screen and the episode features a warning beforehand — “The Politician is a comedy about moxie, ambition, and getting what you want at all costs. But for those who struggle with their mental health, some elements may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised” — many mental health experts believe the portrayal of teen suicide is a concerning trend.
“TV dramas naturally want to explore and sometimes to dramatise distress. Trigger warnings can be part of such programming but they should be sincere,” Chris O'Sullivan, Head of Business Development and Engagement at the Mental Health Foundation, told The Telegraph. “They don’t provide a licence to then show gratuitously distressing content, content that presents a stigmatising view of distress or content that romanticises suicide or shows details of methods, which can increase the risk of copycat behaviour.”
Ged Flynn, Chief Executive of national charity PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide, added that depictions of suicidal behaviour “can, and often does, lead to imitative behavior” and that “people who produce such imagery must weigh up the consequences before putting their work before the public, particularly young people and those who may be vulnerable."
Speaking to BuzzFeed News, Chris Bright, director of public training for the LGBTQ suicide prevention organization the Trevor Project, said that “a key problem that we're facing with a lot of content today is that, graphically or less graphically, depictions of suicide are just not particularly safe.”
According to a Netflix spokesperson who spoke to the outlet, producers for the show met with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention while creating the show in order to “get their advice on how to tell River’s story in the most responsible way.” The spokesperson added that they added the warning under the advice of the AFSP and Mental Health America.0comments
This is far from the first time that Netflix has faced criticism for its portrayal of sensitive topics. Followings its March 2017 debut, original teen-centered series 13 Reasons Why became shrouded in controversy for what many said to be its glamorization of teen suicide, with the series also facing backlash for its graphic depiction of sexual assault.
With several studies linking the Season 1 debut to an increase in teen suicide rates, many called for the series’ cancellation and removal from the platform altogether. Netflix, however, remained steadfast with its position, CEO Reed Hastings stating although it is controversial, “nobody has to watch it.” The company did, however, later announce that it had made the decision to remove character Hannah Baker’s suicide scene.