“You know what they say about people who commit suicide—in the afterlife, they become civil servants.” –Otho (Glenn Shadix), Beetlejuice
How suicide is viewed varies wildly by culture. Obviously, there is no culture that sees it as the right choice for everyone all the time; a culture that believed that would die out pretty quickly. But there is a certain understanding of it in some cultures and others even glorify it in specific situations. The modern American attitude toward it is of course revealed by how it’s shown in our movies. All our cultural attitudes are revealed by movies.
Of course, our movies almost never show things from the perspective of the people making the choice. Part of that is our erasure of mental illness. The mentally ill are almost never given their own voices; we are almost always seen from the perspective of the neurotypical. Our deaths are not seen as our choices but how our choices influence them. And don’t get me wrong—our deaths do influence those around us. Those who love us miss us when we are not there. But because you never see inside the head of the mentally ill character choosing to die, you are not really allowed to understand the thoughts.
One of the movies that deals most intimately with suicide is of course The Hours. A thing that I happen to know about Virginia Woolf is that she was not having a depressive episode when she killed herself. She was making the choice not to have any more. I’m not sure the movie really talks about that; I haven’t seen it in years. I do think it’s an interesting parallel between Woolf’s choice to kill herself rather than keep living with her illness and a character’s choice to kill himself rather than keep living with AIDS.
In real life, one of my most beloved authors wrote at length about being allowed to choose when to die; he didn’t end up making that choice, but he fought as long as he could for the rights of others to do so. He knew how he wanted to live and how he didn’t, and if he ever reached the point where he could not live the way he chose, he didn’t want to live anymore. A beloved actor and comedian, we believe, came to the same conclusion. He didn’t leave a note—fewer people do than most people realize—but we’re pretty sure it was a decision about his health.
When our movies deal with the afterlife, those who have killed themselves are shown to be punished in some way. In Constantine, they literally end up in Hell. Allegedly, this is due to its reliance on Catholic theology, but well before the movie was made, Catholic catechism changed to state that those who committed suicide were not always in their right mind, and by definition acts performed not in your right mind are performed without free will. No free will, no sin. Yes, the Church’s view on suicide has changed, and for centuries it was a mortal sin. But the current Church holds that Jesus will be fair and just. And even if you are in your right mind, it’s now held that there are some circumstances where it’s forgivable.
It is interesting, then, that one of the few movies I can think of that deals with suicide in part from the point of view of the suicidal is The Bridge, a documentary about people who travel to the Golden Gate Bridge to kill themselves. The filmmakers set up cameras on either end of the walkway. The cameras were monitored constantly, and if the people monitoring them saw something that looked like suicidal behaviour, they followed a procedure to try to discourage the person. They were successful several times; other times, they were not. And the film does talk about how the monitors felt when they were unable to prevent a death.
However, more powerful than that at least to me was the discussion with the man who actually survived the jump. (This happens more often than you’d expect, but still not actually often.) He talks about changing his mind on the way down. Most suicides, we know, are matters of impulse; make it harder to kill yourself, and you’re less likely to attempt it. If you can hear his story and not seriously reconsider your impulse, it’s probably not an impulse. And even if it isn’t, it’s still more powerful than all the “they’ll be sorry when I’m dead” variants.
This is not intended to be a defense of suicide. It is absolutely true that suicides leave behind people who are grieving, people who are convinced they should have been able to stop you. But I think part of the problem is that our media focuses on them. “I should have stopped them.” “Why didn’t they tell me?” “I didn’t know.” But if we actually took the time to see inside the head of a suicidal person, we’d understand that. Telling the person that the people they love want them to live either feels like a lie or else exacerbates the depression by adding shame to it. For some, suicide feels like a selfless act, because they are actually making things better for the people they love by removing themselves from those people’s lives and allowing them to move on.
This is one of the weirder corners of where representation matters. I truly believe that, if we as a culture were more inclined to see inside the head of actually mentally ill people, it would help the mentally ill. It would both fight the stigma against mental illness and show mentally ill people that there are people who understand—and that their illness is lying to them. When you are suicidally depressed, it can be hard to reach out to a suicide hotline, so sharing the number won’t fix the problem. Asking someone in the grips of that emotion to fix themselves doesn’t understand what that emotion does to people. It’s good to keep sharing the number, but it still puts the burden on the suffering person to be the one who reaches out.
Mental illness lies to you. It turns your own brain into an unreliable narrator—well, that’s universally true, but it’s worse with mental illness. It makes it hard to believe that people would rather listen to you than just be done with you for once and for all. It tells you that people will get over you once you’re out of their lives. They’ll feel bad for a while, but only for a while and then they’ll be better off. Telling suicidal people to stay alive for others misses the point, and that’s why we need to talk more about what it feels like from the inside.