The Suicide Paradox: Dangerous Suicide Tropes in the Media
WARNING: This Hub contains discussion of media representation and may be triggering to some individuals. Nothing in this Hub is intended to serve as medical advice, and the author is not a licensed counselor or medical professional. If you or anyone you know is facing suicidal thoughts, call a suicide hotline and get help IMMEDIATELY. There are trained professionals waiting to help.
Suicide in the Media
Suicide kills 30,000 Americans each year and is the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15-24 years old. With such a high prevalence rate, it's no surprise that suicide is so often featured in the media. Books, television shows, newspaper articles, songs, and movies all feature countless instances of suicidal characters, ranging in graphic portrayal from ideation to the tragic act itself. While many of these portrayals are responsible and realistic, seeking to shine light on a very dark subject and encourage those with suicidal thoughts to seek help, others are remarkably irresponsible. The following are examples of some of the most irresponsible suicide tropes portrayed in the media along with explanations of why they are so harmful.
The "Chicken" Trope
This is the most glaringly harmful trope, and it's one that has the potential to kill. This trope is particularly popular in films, where suicide is used as a deus ex machina for quick character growth, but it occurs in all media types.
How it Happens:
The hero of the story inevitably reaches the end of his rope due to some injustice or another. The love of his life breaks up with him, he loses his job, falls into debt, or makes a devastating move that ends his career and ruins his lifelong dreams. Whatever the case may be, the hero is left desolate and feels as if he has no other option than to end his own life. He turns to the nearest means of escape and falters at the last moment. This decision not to go through with terminating his own life is then referred to, whether implicitly or directly, as "cowardly." The hero is portrayed as if he "didn't have the guts to go through with it". The failed attempt may even be treated as yet another failure to heap on the hero's shoulders, a source of shame rather than a desperate call for help.
Why It's So Dangerous:
Treating a failed suicide attempt as an act of cowardice by proxy defines suicide as an act of courage. Suicide is neither courageous nor cowardly, neither noble nor selfish. It is an act born out of severe, undiagnosed mental health issues and can't be attributed to a presence or lack of courage any more than a broken leg can.
The "Come to Jesus" Trope
Being a person of faith, I don't dismiss the powerful effect that a spiritual conversion of any kind can have on an individual's psyche. However, the tendency of films to treat suicide as if it is ever a solely spiritual issue is not only false but deadly. The National Institute of Health reports that rates of suicide are generally lower among religious individuals, but these numbers are correlational, not causal. Furthermore, it is believed that a major reason for this difference is due to the fact that many religions have moral sanctions about suicide that result in judgment and punishment in the afterlife.
In fact, among the most common faiths in the United States, Protestants have the highest suicide rates, followed by Roman Catholics. The misconception that "true believers" don't commit suicide is not only false but incredibly dangerous, as it leads to a deeper sense of isolation for the suicidal person. The "Come to Jesus" trope can apply to any religion, but it implies that a relationship with God is a cure-all for suicidal tendencies.
How it Happens:
The hero was a man or woman of faith at one time, or perhaps they never believed. In either case, they find themselves stumbling through the spiritual wilderness without a place to call home. Things get so bad that they either consider or attempt suicide, only to be saved by a mystical spiritual experience that puts them back on the right track. Often, it's painted as if the character's suicidal thoughts were merely the results of being "led astray" by the enemy rather than any number of mental and emotional health issues that are believed to lead to suicidal ideation. Once the hero is back on track with God, their suicidal tendencies have a way of magically disappearing and the rain clouds drift away.
Why It's So Dangerous:
Let's set aside the troubling implication that spiritual disciplines supplant medical treatment for a moment, and focus on the fact that suicide is treated as merely a moral failing in this trope. The implication that a "real Christian" would never fall into the depths of suicidal ideation is exactly the reason why so many people of faith do not seek the help they so desperately need for fear that their faith will be called into question and judged by the very peers who should be there to support them.
Do you think media has a responsibility to portray things like suicide responsibly?
The "Reason Why" Trope
Media representations of suicide often suggest that there is often if not always a situational reason or cause behind suicide. In reality, clinical depression is the leading cause of suicide. Not a breakup. Not a lost job. The factors that cause depression itself are extremely misunderstood. Clinical depression, like suicide, is not situational. While circumstances can trigger or aggravate depression, there is very rarely any single reason why someone commits suicide. The popular young adult book "Thirteen Reasons Why" deals heavily in this trope, suggesting that the list of reasons simply piled up until the main character was unable to take it any longer.
In truth, there are many reasons people seek to avoid through the act of suicide, but those reasons do not address the underlying issue that suicidal people believe that ending their lives is a reasonable way to address those problems. Suicidal ideation is a symptom of countless clinical illnesses, including Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Gender Dysphoria to name just a few of the most common. Assuming that someone is suicidal because of a tangible life event and not a neurochemical abnormality, or a combination of both, is incredibly irresponsible.
How it Happens:
The hero wants only one thing in life, and she's just found out news that means she will never obtain it. The hero lost the love of his life and along with her his will to live. While these are real motivations for many real people who deal with suicidal ideation, they are often treated in media as if they exist alone in a vacuum.
Why It's So Dangerous:
In reality, the reasons behind suicidal ideation are just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the surface lies a nasty tangle of neurochemical imbalance, emotional distress, abuse, lack of coping skills, lack of social support, and the list goes on. Treating suicide as a one-dimensional issue by proxy treats suicidal people as one-dimensional beings. Suicide is rarely if ever a matter as simple as "he/she did it because of x," and treating it as such prevents people from seeing that their tangible problems and their suicidal ideations must be treated as the separate yet interdependent issues that they are.
There is no blanket solution to the problem of irresponsible portrayals of suicidal characters in the media, and censorship certainly isn't the answer. The more people see real, genuine portrayals of what suicide is and how to combat it, the more they will feel able to come out of the woodwork and get the support and help they need. While artists may not have an ethical responsibility to censor their content and avoid discussing harsh subject material like suicide, they do have a responsibility to portray it in a thoughtful way that will not cause more damage by perpetuating already rampant myths about suicide and mental illness.
- Suicide and Depression: Risk Factors and Warning Signs of Suicide
WebMD explains the warning signs and risk factors for suicidal behavior in people with clinical depression. Knowing what to look for can help save a life.
People with depression may lack pleasure in daily activities, significant weight loss or gain, insomnia or excessive sleeping, lack of energy, inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness or guilt and thoughts of death or suicide.
- SAVE | Suicide Facts
- Facts and Figures
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention