Andrew Solomon, a foremost scholar on depression, discusses the portrayal of mental health in media
There are few topics more terrifying to parents than child suicide—yet it’s a topic that needs to be broached with care, love, and responsibility—especially in the media.
Andrew Solomon knows. He is a foremost scholar on depression and a professor of clinical psychology but also a father who had to guide his son through emotional tsunami that followed the suicide death of a friend. The questions of “why?” or even “why not?” inevitably follow.
“They are difficult existential questions that we are not grappling with as a society, and we are not grappling with them as parents because they are too overwhelming and because there are not good answers,” Solomon said.
Solomon spoke about this and mental health depictions in media to an audience in Annie May Swift Hall on October 13 as the featured guest of the Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab for the Promotion of Mental Health via Cinematic Arts (PPSL). The studio lab both examines and creates original narrative media that centers on mental health.
Founder of the Solomon Research Fellowships in LGBT Studies at Yale University, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, and the author of National Book Award-winning best-selling memoir The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Solomon was invited to campus by David Tolchinsky, the founding director of Northwestern University’s MFA in Writing for Screen and Stage program and PPSL’s director.
Solomon’s talk “raised questions that are central to the mission of PPSL: How can we depict mental health concerns in the most effective way possible? Who might be helped or hurt by ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depictions? And what techniques might we use,” Tolchinsky said. "Ultimately, can media help normalize mental health, and by normalizing mental health might we save lives?”
Solomon began his lecture with the story of Jamie, his son’s young classmate (whose name he changed for the lecture), that committed suicide after a few troubling years. At Jamie’s funeral his mom told his classmates, including Solomon’s son, that Jamie’s death was a loss for them too and asked them to promise her that they would tell their parents, friends, or even a doctor what is happening in their mind so that no one would have to go to another funeral.
“For young people under 25 suicide is the second leading cause of death only to accidents,” Solomon said. “From 1950 to 1988 the proportion of adolescents between 15 and 19 who killed themselves quadrupled and between 2007 and 2017 and the number of children aged 10 to 14 who died by suicide more than doubled.”
He warned the audience that the lack of discussion around the topic is dangerous because it does not take into account the enormous complexity and difficulty we go through during childhood or the period that children exist in where they have feelings of despair but are not able to recognize that they will pass.
“The reality is, that in talking about suicide with children, you actually give them the tools to resist it,” explained Solomon. “Despite that there is no cogent national policy or even effort to curtail this. The idea of it is so disturbing and upsetting to people that the pull back from changing policy or law in a way that would be productive.”
The other part of the problem is that when the topic of suicide is addressed with children and young people, it is not done so in a way that is clear or effective.
“Suicide is one of the most powerful words left in the English language, but it is sometimes used to describe great pain,” he said. “However, there are also people who use the word to describe a very real wish to die and sometimes it is difficult to tell who is who.”
Solomon has used film, among other tools, in his work to discuss mental health. His book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children & the Search for Identity, which was one of the New York Times Ten Best Books of 2012, examines how families accommodate children with physical, mental and social disabilities. He created the companion film Far from the Tree (available on Hulu) that also shows how these unusual situations can be approached with love.
He cautioned the audience of student and faculty filmmakers to be thoughtful in the way that they approach the topic, especially for entertainment purposes. When the first episode of the show 13 Reasons Why ran, he said, there were more youth suicides than there should have been in that population and for that time of year. He contrasted the series to the way that people reacted to hip hop performer Logic’s song “1-800-273-8255,” which is the number to the National Suicide Hotline. When the song was released, the hotline saw a 27 percent increase in calls. And on the day Logic performed the song at the 2018 Grammy Awards, the hotline had the highest call volume ever, resulting in a reduction in youth suicides in the following weeks.
“It would be helpful if film studios we able to recognize that what they do can have an enormous effect,” Solomon said. “That there are ways of talking about this in which the essential message is: there are always other solutions…perhaps you can help to fix this brokenness in the world instead of giving in to it. In which they can say: these are the ways you can find help.”
Solomon wrapped up his talk with a call to action for content creators.
“The role in media of enormous,” he said. “People need to be shocked into recognition of how pervasive the problem is and where its occurring. And the people who are actually dealing with it need to know that this is a bigger problem and there are people working on bigger solutions.”