If you read nothing else in this post, please read this next few paragraphs.
If you are feeling suicidal, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 if you’re in the U.S. You can also send a text message to 741741.
If you know someone who needs help, here is an NPR article on ways you can help them.
The most important thing to remember is that suicidal ideation is treatable, and you don’t have to go it alone.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand suicide. I’m not an expert, but I have talked to experts. I’ve talked with families where someone has died by suicide.
Like I said, if you need help, please get it. There is treatment and you can get better. I have seen it happen.
I say all of that because I’ve been watching Babylon. While I like the show, and I’m really of two minds about how it has dealt with suicide.
On the one hand, anything that has the ability to open up an honest discussion about suicide is a good thing. While I have mixed feelings about 13 Reasons Why, I do think the show got people talking about suicide and depression in a way I haven’t seen done before.
On the other, I find myself really questioning whether it’s dealing with suicide in an ethical manner.
A somewhat spoilery plot recap
For the people who don’t have access to Amazon Prime, I can give a short plot recap of the first six episodes. This is just going to touch on the highlights and I’ll try to avoid the big, and weird twists in this show.
A new suburb of Tokyo is being formed called Shiniki. We follow the story of a public Prosecutor called Zen, who finds himself pulled deeper and deeper into a web of weirdness. At this point, he is playing a game of cat and mouse with a woman named Ai Magase, who has the mystical power to make people kill themselves. This is demonstrated a couple of different times.
On top of that, the newly elected mayor of Shiniki is trying to get a law passed that allows people to kill themselves. Now I’m not going to go into how ridiculous this law sounds to my American ears, but that’s part of the plot, and the show does a pretty good job of selling the stakes. In the most recent episode, he debated his opponents.
Here is the biggest twist, so if you don’t want to read this skip to the bottom of the paragraph. At the end of episode 6, we learn that the mayor himself is suicidal, and his own son has been trying to talk him out of it.
The biggest question
Whenever suicide rates increase, people have a single question. Why?
It’s a very easy question to ask, but it’s an impossible question to answer. You could take 50 different cases, and come up with 50 different answers. In any one case, there can be multiple different causes, including psychiatric causes.
This is all made more complex because how we talk about suicide can either help people seek the help they need or can induce others to follow suit, according to a report put together by the World Health Organization. Personally, I’m anxious when I talk about the subject.
The thing I find the least objectionable is Babylon’s “murder by suicide” premise. The bad side is that it perpetuates two persistent myths about the disease. One is that there is a single cause, and the other is that suicide doesn’t have any warning.
The obvious counter-argument is that this a fantasy exceeds believability. The show isn’t trying to portray Ai Magase as some sort of suicide fairy that is the actual cause for every suicide. While it’s trading on the fear that I might have about missing the warning signs in a friend or loved one, I don’t think it is hurtful.
There is a much bigger problem with the debate about the “suicide law” in episode 6. I feel like the show really could have turned the corner and given us some really good reasons why people should seek help.
Here’s the deal. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. for all age groups. It is responsible for the death of nearly 45,000 Americans every year on average, according to the CDC. When we take those numbers out to a world view, 800,000 people die of suicide every year on average.
The same fact sheet points out that 80 to 90 percent of the people who seek help for depression are treated successfully using therapy and/or medication.
I know I’ve said it before, but I will say it again. Treatment works.
But at no point in the debate does anyone say this. They had the perfect venue to convey that this is a treatable condition. Instead, they make some clumsy statements that were pretty forgettable because the mayor needed to be seen as having a chance to win.
A shred of hope
At best, Babylon has dealt with suicide in a clumsily and ham-fisted manner. It’s traded on our fear of it rather than providing us hope that it can be treated. It’s continued myths about it, and when it could offer hope, it avoided it.
That said, we are at episode 6, so this might change. The episode ended with a reveal that the mayor is suicidal, and if he can get treatment, I could see it turning a corner.
All of that said, I would just settle for two things. A warning up front that this is a fictional depiction of the disease and is in no way meant to convey actual facts, and something like the warning I used at the top of this post.
This would at least give people who need help the means to get help.