In early December, I started writing an article on the topic of suicide and the holidays. Before I could finish, however, I got distracted by the holiday festivities. Then, when I was preparing to work on my article again, I was immediately confronted with the Logan Paul controversy. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll give a quick summary:
YouTube entertainer Logan Paul was traveling in Japan last month and has published several vlogs about his trip, which is typical for a vlogger. What wasn’t typical was the subject of one particular vlog. On December 31, 2017, Paul posted a vlog that featured him going to Aokigahara Forest, known to many as the “Suicide Forest.” In his vlog, he and some other people go into the forest, find a dead body hanging from a tree (an apparent suicide), and film both the body (which they blurred) and their reactions. I will not watch the video, but I’ve read that apparently their reaction to the dead body was to laugh.
Many people have defended him and the others, saying that they were laughing out of shock and not because they found the situation funny. But if that was the case, then why did he upload the video to his channel?
Nearly everything Paul uploads to YouTube is intended to entertain, whether it is comedy, drama, or something else. And he is wildly successful. According to CBS News, 56% of his Instagram followers are 25 years or younger and all of his accounts reach a total of over 50 million people. He knows what he is doing when he makes videos and he knows his videos will reach millions of viewers. I would argue that he knew the shock value of showing a dead body would get him clicks and views.
However, the most common defense I have seen of Paul is that he “didn’t think.” But, as has also been pointed out by many, if he “didn’t think,” then why did he take the time to go to this specific forest, look for a dead body, film the body, edit the video, leave in the laughter, and upload it to his entertainment channel? Every part of that process is an intentional act and a choice he made.
Paul took the video down on January 1 and issued an apology:
In his apology, he claims that he intended to raise awareness and says he was wrong. I think that removing the video was the appropriate action, as was apologizing, but the whole thing felt to me like he was apologizing for getting caught. On January 2, he issued a second, more comprehensive apology, which you can judge for yourself. All I will point out is that in this second apology he apologizes to the family of the dead man whom he filmed.
Suicide as Entertainment
But enough about Logan Paul. He is a symptom, not the problem. Media and entertainment are often exploitative of mental illness and can sometimes lead to the romanticization of serious topics like suicide and self-harm. Aokigahara has been the subject of many films, TV shows, cartoons, books, games, etc. This incident reminded me of one in specific, The Forest, a horror film about a young woman in search of her twin sister in Aokigahara. I don’t recall an outcry of the same magnitude of this Logan Paul incident, but I suppose The Forest is a work of fiction, not a vlog about real life.
Regardless, even the Wikipedia page for The Forest is problematic. The setting is described as “in and around the Aokigahara Forest, a forest at the northwest base of Mount Fuji in Japan known as a popular destination for suicide” (emphasis mine) as though the tragedy of suicide in Aokigahara is a draw for tourists and not a public health crisis.
There’s also a quote from the lead actress about her interest in playing two characters (the twin sisters): “You haven’t got the other actor to react against. You have to be a bit schizophrenic.” (Again, my emphasis.)
The Forest and its Wikipedia page are illustrative of the ways in which popular culture and society often a.) misunderstands mental illness (playing two different people when you’re only one person is more illustrative of dissociative identity disorder, not schizophrenia), b.) minimizes mental illness (“a bit” schizophrenic in the way that someone who likes to be very organized is “a bit” OCD or when the weather goes from one extreme to the other it’s “a bit” bipolar — all of these disorders are very serious and can be debilitating), and c.) romanticizes mental illness (“popular destination” — ooh, a lot of people kill themselves here, let’s go film it!). All of these are examples of ways in which society thinks about and discusses mental illness and only serve to further the stigma those with mental illness face.
Even in condemning Logan Paul for his actions, some people have taken to unfortunate expressions, like Aaron Paul, who finished his tweet with “Suicide is not a joke. Go rot in hell.” Talking about suicide and then saying something that is more or less equivalent to saying “Go die” is ironic, to say the least.
While The Forest did face some backlash, it still grossed $37.6 million. And while that might not sound like very much money for a film, its budget was only $10 million, so it still made a profit. Similarly, despite the backlash against Logan Paul for his YouTube video, he still gained over 80,000 subscribers in the week after. According to The Verge, YouTube also removed Paul from “its Google Preferred ad program and is shelving Paul’s upcoming YouTube Red original video projects.” In the end, we’ll have to see whether this has a lasting negative effect on Paul and his career, but I’m going to guess it won’t. Especially not if he’s gained subscribers.
What To Do
Suicide and depression affect the lives of many around the world. Even before I had suicidal thoughts myself, I had already talked with two of my closest friends while they were in moments of crisis in high school. I didn’t know what to say, so I mostly listened, but most importantly, I treated them with compassion. That is what those who suffer from mental illness need the most — compassion.
Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy solution for this issue. The backlash against Logan Paul is a positive sign. It shows that society isn’t willing to allow someone to film a real-life suicide and profit off of it. However, that same backlash isn’t so obvious and impactful when it comes to movies, video games, and other forms of media that use mental illness as entertainment. Unless society rejects such media with their wallets, they will keep being made.
To sum up my thoughts, I’ll post the last tweet in my mini-twitter thread on the Logan Paul incident. I’ve been thinking for months about how I wish I had enough of a following to start a mental health awareness campaign. Maybe this article can be the start.
The Logan Paul incident is a positive sign, but as a society we should have the same response to any glorification or romanticization of the real dangers and pain of mental illness. Perhaps we need a #MeToo movement for mental illness
— Raven Payne (@ProgressiveRavn) January 2, 2018