How visual media holds up the portrayal of suicide
By Bryant Francis
I’ve never had a friend or a family member struggle with thoughts of suicide. Speaking with friends that watched those close to them attempt to or go through wth the act, I’m given a lot of words—painful, horrifying, tragic—but words don’t really capture the meaning of someone choosing to end his or her own life.
When I was camped out on the couch a year ago, watching Battlestar Galactica, the curtain was peeled back for me as I watched one of my favorite characters shoot herself. At first, I thought it was a dream sequence—an in-show illusion—but soon realized, in the world of the show it was real. It was shocking and it felt incredibly real. To this day, that scene scares the hell out of me.
So why is it, after watching a recent episode of the show Dollhouse, I felt almost nothing when another character did the same thing?
Unfortunately, visual media, in many ways, fails to hold the realities of suicide up to the light. A 2007 study conducted by the Center for Suicide Research at Wayne State University highlights several obvious differences, for example women are less likely to be shown as suicide victims in films, but in reality they’re more likely to attempt suicide.
A season four episode of House had one of its main characters, Dr. Lawrence Kutner, kill himself with no warning or indication—but the writers would reveal later that this was not a plan for the character, but rather a convenience, as actor Kal Penn was about to go work for the Obama administration.
While the episode did take the topic of suicide seriously and even provided the suicide hotline number, this out-of-the-blue curveball contradicts the fact that many suicide victims often show warning signs prior to an attempt. It also raises the question of the “convenience” of killing off a character and whether or not suicide is an accurate or sensitive way to do so.
Jack Powers, a Media Studies professor with a background in social psychology, points out that statistics do indicate the power media has over real life suicides.
“When it comes to showing things in the news, you might have some people imitate the behavior,” Powers said. “So when we see teen suicide represented in the news, we are often not surprised that we see a little bit of a spike in teen suicide in that region.”
Melissa Bialick and Hayley Kwartler of the on-campus branch of To Write Love On Her Arms, agree that suicidal characters could be better portrayed. TWLOHA is a national nonprofit organization that offers connections between victims of depression and support groups that can provide counseling. The group encourages people to look for signs of purposelessness and anxiety, feelings of hopelessness or being trapped, and thoughts of recklessness, anger and mood changes—all potential warnings.
“The Media may or may not show any of these examples,” they said.
Another common portrayal of suicide in entertainment is as a sacrifice. In the video game Mass Effect, Saren, one of the villains, can be persuaded into “sacrificing” himself so that the protagonists can stop the main villain from succeeding in his plan in destroying the universe.
Dollhouse takes a similar path when a character named Mellie, trained to kill everyone in sight when the right mental programming is triggered, shoots herself when she is told to kill her romantic interest.
“The metaphor [is], ‘I have to kill myself because I’m so toxic I’ll kill others,’” said Paul Mikowski, a psychologist who works in the Ithaca College Counseling Center. “It can be felt by real people.”
In both of the media examples, the sacrifice is effective to a degree—but they leave out the third option, the one that Paul points out isn’t even discussed.
“There’s a forced choice here, whereas they’ve set up a situation where having [Saren] join you—genuinely join you, is not possible… [there’s] no redemption in life, only redemption in death. That’s how depressed thinking tends to be—black or white. It’s our job to help people see shades of gray.”
“The ability to save the person—that’s more rare, someone who runs in and is able to save someone from committing suicide,” Powers said.
Maybe that’s all it takes. It’s certainly not absent in the media, but as shocking as suicide can be in visual fiction, maybe it’s time another realistic fact was portrayed: the fact that it can be stopped.
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-784-2433 or 1-800-273-8255. The Ithaca College Counseling Center: 607-274-3136. Confidential appointments can be made Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.
Bryant Francis is a sophomore cinema and photography major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.