When Views Eclipse Virtue

Our editor shares her thoughts on why YouTube star Logan Paul’s latest video does a disservice to those living with behavioral health issues and highlights the progress we need to make in talking about suicide.

On Monday, YouTube star Logan Paul apologized for posting a video of himself and friends walking through the Aokigahara Forest and encountering a body of an apparent suicide victim. The Aokigahara Forest is infamous for its status as the second most popular suicide location in the world (the Golden Gate Bridge is number one), having been featured in several films and books over the years, and as the subject of local folklore featuring paranormal activity.

Paul knows this background as he films their journey, starting first with a warning, and then playing up the superstition. When the group finds the body, not only do they film this discovery on camera (blurring the face), but Paul talks to the body, describes it, and reacts to the scene with his usual YouTube persona - laughing, making jokes, smiling, and nervously laughing.

After receiving deserved backlash for the video, Paul claimed “I didn’t do it for views. I get views.” His intention, he maintained, was to raise awareness about suicide and suicide prevention. People were quick to call Paul out for this, prompting another apology from him on Tuesday, where he said, “I want to apologize to anyone who has been affected or touched by mental illness or depression or suicide. But, most importantly, l want to apologize to the victim and his family."

Paul has made it clear that he does not know how to talk about suicide. The incident demonstrates not only a gross lack of compassion and respect, but a lack of education and understanding in raising awareness, preventing suicide, and most importantly, discussing the topic. Paul asserts it was all in the name of “suicide awareness”, and yet, by posting and then labeling his video with that claim, he equates his insensitivity and comedic stunt with an attempt to illuminate the public about a very serious issue.

Paul’s videos reach millions of viewers. For many of these viewers who may not know how to approach this topic, Paul’s video could be their first example of having a “conversation” about suicide awareness. And yet, Paul’s reaction to discovering the victim’s body is more akin to how one would respond to a prank or joke, rather than how one would respond to an in-person representation of the global crisis claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people every year. In doing this, Paul ultimately devalues the struggle of people living with mental and behavioral health issues, and reduces it to parody.

We see Paul exploit and make a spectacle of a person’s despair - leading his supposed dialogue about suicide with superstition, intrigue, and shock value rather than discussing the underlying factors that might drive someone to take his or her own life. What could have been an opportunity - especially with his platform and exposure - to understand the experiences of people living with behavioral and mental health issues instead proved a mockery and insult to human dignity.

What this incident tells us is that we still need to educate ourselves and each other on how to talk about suicide. Though Paul’s response to this tragedy was broadcast on a public and global scale - it is not an isolated incident. He represents a larger cultural insensitivity, in which our society lacks the adequate health literacy required to grasp the severity and significance of what it means to be living with behavioral health issues, and the impact suicide has on our communities.

Our neighbors - locally and globally - live with behavioral and mental health issues, and more than 800,000 people die from suicide each year around the world. We cannot treat this tragedy as the punchline in a YouTube video; we must have open and honest conversations about the everyday struggles of people living with behavioral and mental health issues to prevent suicide. We might not have all of the right words or things to say, but if we lead our conversations with support, compassion, respect, and overall reverence for human dignity, we can begin to make greater strides in awareness and prevention, and let those struggling know that they matter.