Since no one yet has challenged me on the controversial notion that we can teach children about suicide, I’d like to point out a theme I’ve seen running through the films, which is that of being able to name, recognize, and acknowledge mental illness.
Emma Benoit, the teenager who shot herself and survived and now speaks and advocates for suicide prevention, says in the documentary My Ascension that her experience opened up the world of mental health to her. She said that she had no idea what she was struggling with, or how to explain it. I can’t help but think that if Emma, who was very young when she attempted to take her life, had recognized she was in the grips of depression and anxiety she could have intervened and tried to treat it.
In the short CHOL, director Nandini Bapat specifically says the main character Nalini is struggling with something “she cannot name.” She’s sleeping too much, skipping family functions, making small mistakes and brooding over them. She tells her therapist that her family instructed her never to talk about herself or her problems, and so depression built up inside her and brought her to a dangerous brink.
In Why Me?, a family and school community struggles to come to terms that a teen is manifesting bipolar disorder, rather than just moodiness or lingering grief over her father’s passing. Some characters in the film deny that mental illness is a real illness. The mother in the film even hesitates, embarrassed, about calling a psychiatrist, as if it’s an admission that her daughter is “crazy.” Once the mood disorder becomes serious enough and treatment comes into the picture, those in the film are able to accept and define that the young woman is mentally ill, which sets them on a path to treatment.
In Dragon Quest, once a young man defines and literally names his depression, he can suddenly take on weapons to defeat it. His therapist tells him it may not go away that day, and in fact, it may never go away. But now, he can recognize it and continue the literal and figurative battle against it.
ee the pattern I’m getting at here. I think the sooner we’re able to define mental illness and give it a name, the sooner we are likely to be able to recognize symptoms and intervene before the illness becomes too destructive or deadly.
I’m not going to sit here and say that this recognition is the key to resolving the problems created by mental illness. We all know that’s not true and that many people live with mental illness for a long time, it is still very painful, and suicide is probably a sad reality we will always have to live with. With at least a few filmmakers telling me knowing what they were coping with earlier would have deterred their suicidal ideation, however, I can’t help but think recognizing it and naming it, even with the very young, could be another powerful tool to fight its harmful effects.