Depression & Suicide: “Reality” Versus “The Celebrity Message”
Updated: Oct 19, 2019
By: Jennifer Klesman, LCSW
Selena Gomez recently announced that she is seeking treatment for depression and anxiety. As a therapist and advocate for mental health, I felt that this was both brave and amazing. She possesses such a massive reach to young people around the world through her music, so a statement like this is incredibly powerful! Selena was interviewed by Harpers Bazaar magazine on her life, her heritage, and how she felt 2018 would be for her. She then casually commented that she was going to focus on choosing herself over all else this year.
She stated that she doesn’t set goals in order to not disappoint herself when she doesn’t reach them, and that she may never overcome her anxiety and depression, which is what the internet and news articles are highlighting. It’s certainly true that depression and anxiety aren't guaranteed to disappear after treatment. Feelings of depression & anxiety are capable of returning because after treatment, life goes on, and with the unpredictability of life, obviously one can never be fully immune to unpleasant emotional periods.
Selena’s hesitation to set goals irked me especially considering that the purpose of setting goals is to create a direction to move towards. The goal “to feel better” may be too broad and isn’t measurable, which may make the goal feel unobtainable. However, if you’re measuring “feeling better” by being more active in friendships, working out, doing a job you enjoy, and functioning without daily crying spells, while this goal would take work, because it’s measurable, the goal should feel more attainable. When working to overcome something like anxiety and depression, goals are pretty important. Now, if Selena wants to approach her mental health recovery without goals and finds that it relieves pressure from her already strenuous lifestyle, then more power to her, but for the rest of us, goals can be helpful. In therapy, it’s all about goals - otherwise how do we know you’re getting better?
I only harp on this point because of her wide reach with these statements and who it can affect, which is far greater than even I had originally thought. As I read more about Selena making such a bold announcement, I discovered something else: She is actually the executive producer of the 2017 Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why.
13 Reasons Why is a Netflix series based on a bestselling novel by the same name. The basic plot is about a teenage girl who commits suicide and leaves behind cassette tapes of her audio diary explaining why she took her own life. She covers 13 specific reasons (13 people), explaining to each of the 13 people how they are responsible for her death.
I spent the last 7 years working in high schools as a school social worker and this show was the most disruptive media I had seen in all of my time working in education. Everyone was talking about it and administrators were sending out e-mails about students needing to talk. For a lot of students, this subject hit very close to home with its impressively graphic depiction of sexual violence and the act of suicide.
In one particular scene, the main character, Hannah, is raped in a hot tub, and it’s not suggestive or tactful, it’s a violent and horrible actual sexual assault. The series also shows the same teenage girl committing suicide in a bathtub by slitting her wrists and not once does the camera cut away from the graphic scene, the show makes you watch all of it. It’s extremely uncomfortable to watch and the sounds alone will make your heart sink and skin crawl.
I personally appreciate the show for this scene because the image of slitting your wrists in a bathtub has been glorified and romanticized for years. In my work, I’ve seen a number of teenagers draw on their wrists, draw pictures of slitting their wrists, or actually attempt to do it because of this romanticized mindset. It is not pretty. It is not poetic. It’s traumatic for everyone involved and a horribly slow way to go. While many shows and movies have vaguely depicted suicide, none have really shown the entirety of this act; instead we usually just watch characters finding bodies after the fact.
While the show does a good job of accurately depicting the horror of the actual act of suicide, the overall messages relayed throughout the show and book are problematic because it suggests that killing yourself as an act of revenge against those who’ve hurt you will somehow leave you with a sense of retribution. The show portrays and promotes the fantasy of many suicidal individuals: “I’m going to kill myself and then you’re going to suffer when you see how you drove me to do this”. That is exactly what some people who are lost in depression dream of. However, in real life, you don’t get to see the reactions of those you hurt with your act because you’re dead. You don’t get to see the regret, the pain and the suffering you cause because you’re gone.
At the end of 13 Reasons Why, the lesson the audience is left with is “if only they had been nicer to her, she might still be here”, which dismisses her mental illness entirely. The message should have been, “if only she had gotten professional help and treatment, she might still be here”. Of course, being kind to those struggling with depression might help them feel momentarily better, but if someone is suicidal, they need professional help, not just a friendly hello.
The fact that a second season of the show has been created re-emphasizes the false idea that after suicide, you’ll always be remembered by the people who caused you to kill yourself. Sure, those people may think about you from time to time, but in reality, eventually they move on and will likely forget about you. So again, 13 Reasons Why blends realistic visuals with unrealistic messages. In the show, it would seem that Hannah may get her everlasting revenge against those who drove her to kill herself, but in reality, people in reality move on with their lives, and the person who takes their life does not get to achieve and feel their revenge.
So while the topic of teen suicide is absolutely one that needs attention to create better awareness, I think the show’s coverage of the topic was a little reckless. Though not nearly as reckless as Youtuber Logan Paul was with his filming of an actual suicide victim in Aokigahara, but it’s hard to get it that wrong. 13 Reasons Why has actually been linked to an increase in suicide searches online and triggered some teen suicides.
I’m not against Selena, her connection to the show or her speaking out about mental health, in fact I think it’s great that it’s a topic she doesn’t want to shy away from. She committed to portraying an unfiltered depiction of suicide and sexual assault and has been realistic about the fact that depression and anxiety are lifelong struggles for many people. She also added a nice touch by implying that being famous in a pretty dress in front of cameras won’t eradicate the depression. By openly addressing mental illness, she has shown true character and that she is a real person with real struggles like everyone else. Hopefully this will help her fans to seek and accept help for whatever they may be struggling with.
In Summary, Selena’s announcement that she was seeking treatment for depression & anxiety make depression, suicide, and anxiety a more mainstream dialogue. This is clearly a positive thing because when young people feel hopeless, their first inclination is often to search the internet and social media for validation instead of speaking to a professional. Unfortunately, social media platforms can be filled with other hopeless individuals who may lead these lost souls down a dangerous path, this may be in part because misery really does love company. Fortunately, among the negative voices online, Selena’s voice is also there speaking boldly about both the realities of mental illness as well as the benefits of getting professional help.