Representation of suicide in fiction

By: Hasitha Durgavajjhala

For as long as humans have told stories, the concept of suicide has been folded in as a palatable way to depict turmoil. Tragedy in itself is too abstract to fully grasp on to, so storytellers have learned to channel it through accessible tropes. Romeo and Juliet chose to poison themselves rather than being separate, Javert jumped off a bridge when he realised morality and legality were not synonymous, Tony Stark snapped his fingers to save the universe. The audience may never truly understand the desperation of ill-fated love, the terror of personal principles dissipating, or a superhero’s magnitude of sacrifice. They may however understand the feeling of fear, the desire to escape one’s wrongdoings or  even a single tear at the thought of a child left parentless. All these situations maybe unlikely for the general viewer, but they serve as an easy way to depict the weight of emotional burdens.

In the early 2000s, conversations about mental health were rare in the mainstream, and the subjects were still  considered a taboo. At this time, children’s literature was shifting quickly from mass-produced pulp fiction to young adult novels. Specifically, young adult dystopian series like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson became a staple genre almost overnight. These series all tended to follow a pattern – a teenage lead with a tragic past would suddenly find out that they are the “Chosen One” and set out on a quest to defeat a series of villains. In the process, they would learn the horrific truth – in order to save the day, the protagonist would have to sacrifice themselves. They would spend most of the last installation of the series struggling with this idea and eventually come to peace with it. When Harry Potter faced Voldemort, he fully expected to die. He survived thanks to a clever narrative work-around, that the “evil” parts of him had been killed, but he himself came out alive because he chose to survive. What could have been a theme too dark for children’s story was quickly re-framed as a moral tale about perseverance.

Suicide in this genre is not framed as a mental health issue. Rather, it is shown to be inevitable – that in order to gain peace, something just as precious must be sacrificed. The goal of these stories was always to show that any child as “normal” as the readers could easily be a hero should they step up to the challenge – that even if all the protagonist has to offer is their life, they would be brave enough to give even that away for the greater good.

In the mid-2010s, conversations about mental health grew more frequent, especially on the internet. Topics that were previously taboo were brought out more, and pushes were made to have productive discussions about common mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. By pure coincidence, this was the same time as the third golden age of television. The result of this coincidence was the production of many new TV shows trying to portray mental health issues. Shows like Fleabag, Bojack Horseman and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are widely acclaimed for skilful and realistic portrayals of mental health issues.

Many shows have talked about suicide, but one that has, controversially, stayed in the forefront of the genre is Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. Adapted from the Jay Asher novel of the same name, the story follows high schooler Clay Jensen, who traces a series of cassette tapes left by former classmate Hannah Baker chronicling the situations that led to her suicide. The book itself was met with mixed responses, but the show was widely criticised for its portrayal of mental health issues. It features a long scene graphically showing Hannah’s method of committing suicide, as well as depictions of self-harm and sexual violence. The suicide scene in particular was deemed unnecessarily gory by viewers, and many mental health experts have agreed that it violated the guidelines of depiction of suicide. Immediately after the release of the show, there was a marked increase in teen suicide rates as well as an increase in the web searches for methods to commit suicide.

13 Reasons Why attempts honest conversations about mental health, but it was overshadowed by how the gory scenes were sensationalised, particularly the suicide scene. Regardless of the intentions, the impact of the show has been an increase in teen suicides and triggering of mental health issues in vulnerable individuals. It stands as a good example of why mental health representation should be handled sensitively.

A more subtle, and perhaps more realistic, representation of suicide is in the popular Korean drama, 쓸쓸하고 찬란하神 – 도깨비 (Guardian: The Lonely and Great God).  The story follows Kim Shin, a Goblin who is punished with near immortality for the lives he took protecting his country. The only way he can die is if the sword in his chest is removed by his fated bride. Ji Eun-Tak, a high schooler with a tragic past, has known she is the Goblin’s bride since she was a child, but does not know what that entails. The show deals with the metaphysics of death on a much more obvious stage, with the second male lead being a Grim Reaper, and “the Almighty” being an unseen yet constantly referenced being, assumed to be orchestrating everything. The themes of suicide are masked by questions about fate and fear but still they are prevalent throughout the show.

Kim Shin is shown to want to die from the moment he gains immortality, and is frustrated by his inability to do so. To him, his own death is not a tragedy, but rather a sweet relief. The show goes against expectations by showing Kim Shin and Eun-Tak as two sides of the same coin: Kim Shin, who has waited centuries for death, represents life in all its burdens and beauties. Eun-Tak, who has waited a decade to finally be able to live, represents death in its blunt suddenness. Kim Shin’s centuries-long desire for death is suddenly within reach, yet he finds himself finally wanting to live day by day. The cocktail of emotional portrayed – exhaustion, fear, indecision, longing – shine through the fantastical elements of the story to show the reality of the nature of suicide.

In the film industry, a personal standout among the many films depicting suicide is The Skeleton Twins. Starring Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as long-estranged twins. The film starts with Milo and Maggie simultaneously attempting suicide but only for Maggie to be interrupted as she gets a call from a hospital that her brother has been admitted for attempting suicide. The story follows the siblings reconnecting after a decade, and slowly healing through their rekindled relationship. It portrays the tough reality of invisible mental illness – the main characters are aware of their issues, but are simultaneously in denial. Suicide in this film is neither an attention-grab nor a tragedy, it is an escape from the exhaustion of existence. It weaves through the story to explain the characters’ emotions but is never used as an excuse to justify their actions.

In musical theatre, Dear Evan Hansen has stood out as a successful musical that openly deals with the themes of suicide. The story follows Evan Hansen, who is mistaken as the best friend of Connor Murphy, a classmate who recently committed suicide. Rather than immediately clearing up the confusion, Evan gets entangled in a web of lies trying to pretend that it was true. He uses the mistake to create a campaign for suicide and mental health awareness, all while making increasingly immoral choices. The representation of suicide in Dear Evan Hansen is interesting in that the actual victim is actually only in a handful scenes and the rest of his appearances are as Evan’s imagination of him. The show is a great mediation on how suicide affects the life’s of  people around the victim and the legacy left behind in teen suicides.

The purpose of art is to reflect the world and to leave an impression for  the future generation’s of how the people of the past experienced the world. To that end, increased representation of suicide and of mental health issues as a whole, is important in order to showcase the shift towards sensitivity and healing that society now seems to be pushing towards. However, rather than sensationalising it, the focus should be on realistic and sensitive depictions. Suicide is a multi-faceted phenomenon. There is no one way to fully describe what leads to a suicide or what comes after. Perhaps no art will ever be able to perfectly capture it but  even if they are able to stimulate meaningful conversations, they  will definitely helping saving a life.

Hasitha Durgavajjhala
Hasitha Durgavajjhala

A student pursuing a Master’s degree in biotechnology in Noida, India, and a member of SAC’s Suicide Prevention and Awareness campaign. A passionate advocate for mental health. Lover of TV, sunsets and my cat.

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