Key Learning Points So Far:
The portrayal of mental illness by writers/creators affects stigma. Stigma leads to negative treatment once individual is identified (‘marked’) as mentally unwell.
Mental illness is difficult to define but is socio-culturally determined. Cultural context is important when depicting a character as mentally ill. There should be no drug/alcohol intoxication or organic illness. Behaviour/experience also needs to be sustained in order to attribute it to mental illness.
The assessment of mental illness should draw information from as many sources as possible (self, others, mental health workers), and should consider a change from the baseline.
Examination of Buffy s6ep17 shows superficial attendance to reality of mental illness.
Electro-convulsive Therapy (ECT) has a troubled history, but is both safe and effective.
Trigger Warning: Up to 1 in 4 people can be affected by mental illness so if any of the topics discussed here affect you contact your health professional (General Practitioner in the UK).
Scope: This is for creators of speculative fiction. The idea is to improve depiction of the mentally ill in narratives like film, books, music videos etc. It is just a primer, therefore it will not go into too much detail.
Spoiler Alert: Here there be spoilers. Deal with it. I will try not to reference anything currently showing in cinemas, but I make no promises.
Part 6: Suicide and the Sandman
Neil Gaiman and an army of artists wrote ‘Sandman’ for 75 issues between 1989 and 1996. It is one of the high points of the sequential arts medium and has won a string of awards. If you have not read it stop now, because I will talk about the end. Seriously, do not proceed beyond this point.
The series ends in what is essentially the suicide of the eponymous Sandman (aka Morpheus aka Dream, of the Endless). There are many wonderful things about the series but the suicide of Morpheus was elegantly nuanced.
Morpheus is one of the endless (pictured above): Dream, Destruction, Desire, Delirium (formerly Delight), Despair, Death and Destiny. They are godlike beings who represent some fundamental aspect of sentient life as their names suggest. We are never told who their parents are, but there is a birth order.
If you remember the previous parts we mentioned that in assessment of mental illness one has to check the family history. Is there evidence of mental illness in the Endless? Well, yes. We’ll leave out the absent parents (which we know can screw up any child) and go straight to the siblings.
- Destruction walked away from both his duties and the family.
- Despair constantly self-harms by cutting herself.
- Delirium is psychotic, and her change from Delight shows a definite onset of psychosis.
- Desire is not necessarily mentally ill, but S/he is homicidal and vindictive. The vindictiveness is a trait shared by Morpheus.
This shows a definite problem in the family.
What about Morpheus himself?
The Sandman is rigid and inflexible. He is narcissistic and vindictive, prone to excessive vengeance.
He is prone to depression as is demonstrated many times throughout the series. He bears the guilt of killing his own son (long story) and imprisoning a woman who spurned him for over a thousand years in Hell.
Morpheus dies in the end. In my opinion he committed suicide.
“The only reason you’ve got yourself into this mess is because this is where you wanted to be”
The circumstances that lead to Sandman’s death were engineered in part by Desire, but we are clearly informed that Morpheus could have avoided it, but chose not to.
In my opinion his suicide was made realistic by the absent parents, the family history and his personal experience of depression combined with an inflexible personality.
Some points about suicide
Suicide is extremely tragic and has been depicted in dramatic form and fiction since man could form sentences. It appears to have been with us throughout recorded history. I’ve heard it said that one suicide can affect up to sixty people.
Because suicide is rather dramatic and eye-catching we often lose sight of one thing: it is uncommon. In most countries it is in the order of 11-16 per 100,000 per year. It is never casually done.
There are three components to suicide: 1. The person is dead. 2. The person died by their own hand. 3. They intended to die by their own hand.
These three components (but 3 in particular) make suicide difficult to prove, and for historical reasons it is defined differently in different countries (For example, England and Wales have a different way of determining suicide when compared with Scotland). This makes research difficult and comparison of statistics tricky.
Most but not all victims suffer from a mental illness at the time of suicide. Mood disorders increase risk. 60-70% have depression, people with schizophrenia are at risk, especially around the time of diagnosis and during recovery; substance abuse is a risk factor; anxiety and panic disorders can be risk factors. Note that people who have experienced non-lethal self-harm or suicide attempts are at increased risk of completed suicide (and can we just put that whole ‘cry for help’ malarkey to rest please?). Even though two thirds of those who kill themselves have never tried to harm themselves about one tenth of those who harm themselves may go on to kill themselves. A chronic medical condition can be a risk factor, especially if associated with chronic pain.
Twin studies demonstrate that there is a genetic component to suicide, but it isn’t Mendelian. The captain of the HMS Beagle (yes, the one with Darwin) was a man called Robert FitzRoy. He was noted to be odd and almost certainly suffered from Bipolar disorder. FitzRoy killed himself by slitting his own throat in 1865. FitzRoy’s uncle had killed himself by similar means about a decade earlier. According to Bryson, 2003, “FitzRoy came from a family well known for a depressive instinct.”
To Nuance Suicide in Fiction Consider:
- Past history of suicide attempts
- A history of impulsive behaviour
- A family history of depression or suicide attempts
- Living alone
- Being widowed/divorced
- Sometimes seen in white elderly males more commonly
- There should be access to the means
- There may be a childhood adverse experience
- There may be previous suicidal ideation
- There may have been planning
- Substance misuse is very common
- Recent loss is common
- A personal history of depression/panic disorder
Remember: Be sensitive. Suicide should not be a punchline or plot device. Remember that what you write affects real people with real lives.