| Arts & Culture
Movies How Truthful Depictions of Suicidal Ideation Help Me Resist My Own
If we’re going to spend so much time with suicide in pop culture, I do believe we are owed an honest reckoning with what ideation is, as well as depictions that are truthful rather than dangerous.
The first and only time I tried to kill myself, I was saved by my ignorance. I was young and uninformed about what effect an overdose of ibuprofen would have on me, so all I accomplished was damaging my insides a little. I was embarrassed more than anything.
It felt like a scene from a bad movie I’d seen before. Not only due to its melodrama and vague sense of irony, but because it was a commotion about a failed suicide attempt. We’re relatively accustomed to seeing this, the moment, the climax. The character has made the decision, they’ve committed to following through, and there’s only one of two outcomes. Scriptwriters have long mined this moment for spectacle and drama, the ultimate tragedy, because it packs an undeniable emotional wallop while simultaneously serving as a fundamental shift in a narrative. For writers, the suicide attempt is the dual-purpose trope that keeps on giving, somewhat reminiscent of rape narratives that exploit the trauma of the experience for the sake of storytelling shorthand.
It’s what came before that feels unfamiliar, and more isolated. The moments, days, weeks, months, years of thoughts, feelings, impulses, arguments, and compromises with one’s self that precede the fateful decision. The inner conflict that goes unverbalized, or remains frustratingly out of reach. It’s unfamiliar because it’s not often represented, and isolating because there’s nothing to compare it to. It only exists within yourself.
Psychologists and psychiatrists differentiate between suicidal behavior (attempts and deaths) and suicidal ideation, which the American Psychiatric Association describes as “thoughts of serving as the agent of one’s own death.” (Even the clinical definition plays up the drama.) Each patient is usually assessed based on a variety of factors: their diagnosed mental illnesses, their history (previous attempts/self-harm, family history, hospitalizations), their psychosocial situation (employment status, education, external supports/relationships, other stressors), and their current presentation of suicidality, their immediate risk and the extent of their ideation.
These are the things that are more difficult for filmmakers and writers to depict. Not only is the makeup of ideation more abstract, but it’s simply far more complex and, often, mundane. It’s not particularly cinematic.
I tense when I sense that a film character is about to attempt suicide. I know it’s low-hanging fruit, but when I watched Tommy Wiseau’s The Room for the first time, the film reached unfortunate moral depths with its ending, in which Wiseau’s character, Johnny, shoots himself after discovering that his fiancée has been hooking up with his best friend. Johnny is characterized as benevolent throughout the film, despite his horrible (or inexplicable) actions, including his domestic abuse, and his suicide is meant to make everyone who has wronged him feel guilty.
Following a common trope, the intention is to condemn the ex-lover’s actions and valorize the spurned one who has killed themselves. How could she have done this to him? What choice did he have? The Room , in all its imprecise artificiality, reveals how clichés about suicide have festered in media and culture, ultimately leading to this film’s repulsive example, a culmination of every other bad decision made by other filmmakers when it comes to suicide. Shit rolls downhill. Either the suicidal person is selfish, or they are trying to teach others a lesson.
It’s ugly, harmful, and ignorant—but at least it’s dramatic.
The attempt, the action, its completion. It can be superficial, sanitized, as in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides , affecting though it remains. It can be used for shock value, as in Ti West’s The House of the Devil , as the protagonist attempts to kill herself at the end of the film as a convenient plot device, offering a wry solution to her impossible situation. It can be treated as a Very Special Episode, or as a simplistic manipulation of the audience’s sympathies (how many times can you recall a character catching a glimpse of another’s self-harm scars as a way to illustrate their damaged self and past?). When the suicide is a sacrifice, it’s romanticizing. When suicide is made into a joke, it’s disrespectful. When the suicide is realistic, it’s familiar and potentially triggering.
At the end of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude , after Harold decides to marry Maude to the disgust of his family, Maude reaffirms her belief that eighty is the “right age to die,” and purposefully overdoses on sleeping pills. The film repeatedly makes jokes in poor taste about suicide, most insistently through Harold’s macabrely elaborate fake suicides. The first time I saw the film, I was just starting to understand my own mental illness, and this dark humor felt bold and exciting to me. Harold was the Boy-Who-Cried-Suicide who faked self-immolation, seppuku, among other methods of suicide. There seemed to be power in that, an empowering rejection of the subject’s heavy reverberations.
But ultimately, we’re given a trite cliché for why Harold has this obsession: He accidentally caused an explosion while at boarding school, leading the police to believe he had died, and he witnesses his mother react to the news with more emotion than he’d ever seen her emit before. Struggling through tears, he tells Maude, “I decided then I enjoyed being dead.” In other words, he enjoys inflicting emotional trauma on those that care about him (and those that don’t) purely to hurt them for, say, not expressing themselves well enough to him. Because it feels good to see them hurting due to his absence.
This is a dangerous and recurrent fantasy for suicidal characters, who like to imagine what effect their death would have on those around them. It’s a perilous delusion, one that’s easy for depressives to slip into, that storytellers are all too pleased to perpetuate. The second time I watched the film, more recently, it felt far more false. This spoiled boy delights in traumatizing others through faux-suicide, and we seem to be meant to appreciate Maude’s real suicide as an ironically karmic solution, the seemingly inevitable comeuppance to his eccentric morbidity. How droll!
Our cultural consciousness is used to engaging, however poorly, with suicides and their aftermath, but fails to even consider what comes before. As someone who struggles with ideation, I’m incredibly disappointed in these representations of suicides, yet even more saddened by how we (don’t) deal with ideation in media. On some level, I understand the trepidation—how do you make it compelling or entertaining?
In my experience, ideation is characterized by its banality, its neverending routine. It’s the devil always on your shoulder, whispering and making promises through your exhaustion, tempting you when you have a moment to yourself or sending a jolt through you when you least expect it.
Ideation is also intimately personal, often numbingly specific, an internal struggle that doesn’t necessarily inspire a simple visual method of expressing itself. Particularly for someone who hasn’t experienced anything like it, but even for those that have, how could they imagine how to manifest what it feels like? I have to ask myself, then: Why do I want to see something so personal, devastating, and mundane represented on-screen? And how would it even be done?
Perhaps I could start by interrogating how I deal with my own suicidal thoughts. Could that help me understand how to answer my own question? Well, I think about it—suicide—every day. It’s not something you necessarily get used to, but you find ways of coping. One, of course, is watching movies and TV. It is both a reprieve and a possible source of emotional catharsis. Sometimes, when I turn to movies to distract myself from the dark reality of my own mind, the last thing I want is to see someone try to kill themselves.
At the same time, I want to see suicidal thoughts, to have them be normalized, however strange a word “normalize” may be. As we become accustomed to bland platitudes on #WorldMentalHealthDay, we still encounter little discourse about the lived experiences of depressives and others who struggle every day with thoughts of offing themselves. Though stigmatization of the topic continues to permeate, I want ideation to be a part of the conversation.
But what does a media landscape featuring the hopelessness, waywardness, and visceral inwardness of ideation look like, feel like?
One’s suicidal thoughts are an intensely personal function of their mental illness or affliction, and there’s something bizarre about wishing to have that translated into audiovisual stories. One example that comes to mind is the aimless melancholy of Louis Malle’s The Fire Within, as Alain (played by Maurice Ronet with surprising tenderness) can’t help but feel alone despite the support of those around him. It ’ s one of the rare depictions of a suicidal character that feels genuine. Malle utilizes the techniques of the French New Wave movement to help construct a noir-tinged tragedy about the self-destructive consequences of both alcoholism and a sense of isolation that can’t be shaken. It wrangles with the standard existentialism of the New Wave, but does so through the perspective of a depressed character, reaching out for something, anything, but always returning empty-handed.
It’s realistic (many suicidal individuals visit friends and family before their attempt, as if searching for a final reminder of why they should keep living), but not horrifying. It’s funny, but not insulting. It’s poignant, but not idealized. And the ending, while it plays into familiar tropes, feels earned since it doesn’t exist independent from ideation. We’ve seen Alain’s meandering plight, and though it may not directly reflect your own, it’s an honest attempt at capturing the process in a substantive, absorbing way.
But that doesn’t feel quite right, either, does it? Maybe that media landscape feels more like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia , which literalizes the world-ending impression of depression with Justine (Kirsten Dunst), exhibiting calm as the apocalypse approaches via the rogue planet named Melancholia crashing into the Earth. But the film also depicts how difficult it is for depressives to manage the positive or “happy” aspects of their lives and how adept they can be at managing the chaos that life can throw at you.
In fact, depressives may, at times, be the best candidates for remaining calm under external stressors—we do battle with ourselves every day, so what could the world possibly throw at us? Melancholia , despite its theatrical overtures, plays into the abstract notion I seem to be searching for, a reminder that I’m not alone and that there are cathartic expressions I can tap into and experience that aren’t death (Tessa Thompson’s character’s arc in Annihilation comes to mind).
Ideation, frankly, isn’t something that can be conquered or vanquished. At best, it can be endured, a Sisyphean task. But death—death can be resisted. The drifting nature of ideation is a constant, but my life is marked by landmines that I must avoid. Were I to step on one, which happens rarely, I would begin to erupt from the inside out, a tangled constellation of internalized fears bursting into my reality, no longer ignorable.
Ideation, frankly, isn’t something that can be conquered or vanquished. At best, it can be endured, a Sisyphean task. But death—death can be resisted.
Chantal Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie , is, in part, about feeling adrift. Surrounded by landmines like mine, and starved for an anchor in this world (for Akerman, it is her late mother), the fire of ideation in Akerman’s mind is fueled. The film is weighted by the traumas her mother suffered, and their generational impact. And she is what’s left, with nothing to tether her to the earth. (Akerman committed suicide two days before the film’s premiere, in 2015.) In my lowest moments, after being burst, I take stock of my options. Do I own any rope? My belt is unlikely to be strong enough. My sheets are dirty, so that would be embarrassing. I live on the second floor of my building. I certainly don’t own a gun.
But those moments soon terrify me, planning my own death like laundry. It is enough, I think, to terrorize myself into repulsion at the thought of my demise. I’m terrified that, one day, this repulsion won’t come. I will know it’s coming, and will plan it precisely. Can you imagine? I can. Akerman’s No Home Movie shows the significance of anchors. Of course, you cannot risk such dependency that the loss of your anchor means your own desolation follows. But anchors won’t let you feel alone. I cling to mine.
None of these examples, though, are truly able to represent ideation as it is actually experienced. I’m not convinced it is something that can be translated into an artistic medium, let alone expressed or communicated in a way that makes sense and is understandable by a third party, someone not privy to the inner-workings of my mind. I’m struck by the realization that our media does not necessarily have a responsibility to strive for that kind of articulation.
But if we’re going to spend so much time with suicide in our entertainment, as I believe we should, I do believe that we are owed an honest reckoning with what ideation is and how storytellers can avoid using it in dangerous ways. Life with ideation is a war, one that will not end, and we can see elements of its processing in films like The Fire Within , Melancholia , and No Home Movie . The challenge is finding the right way to expose what is inside, to render the internal in external terms.
This is what storytellers do, we should remember. Emotions, feelings, thoughts, intimate ephemera are all exorcised into something expressive, intended to be shared with others, to make them feel less alone about whatever feeling they may be dealing with. Suicidal ideation is ugly, incomprehensible, and a central tenet of my daily life and routine. Show me this quotidian conflict. I need it. It’s a reminder to keep living.