The recent popularity of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why has started an unprecedented conversation about mental health and suicide in pop culture.
As a result, however, we have one particular narrative of suicide sitting front and centre – one that paints the act as the ultimate form of revenge, and focuses on the apparently tangible ‘reasons’ that lead a person to choose to end their life.
But tonight on the ABC, a particularly powerful (and timely) episode of You Can’t Ask That airs at 9pm.
The show, which is in its second season, aims to lift the lid on difficult conversations by asking misunderstood Australians the questions we’ve always wanted to ask. The questions are anonymous – and are therefore posed without the reverent, politically correct filter we would usually adopt.
Tonight’s demographic is suicide-attempt survivors, and they’re asked everything from ‘why are you still alive?’ to ‘do you think what you did was selfish?’
Many individuals describe the method by which they attempted suicide – a topic usually avoided at all costs, due to ‘suicide contagion’ research that suggests information about method leads to copy cat behaviour.
Listen: Annette and Stuart Baker and Frank and Alley Barret are members of a terrible club. Both families lost teenage children to suicide. Post continues after audio.
But the entire point of You Can’t Ask That is to not shy away from topics that are hard or awkward or problematic. And in wholeheartedly committing to this approach, the show offers a raw, real and deeply emotional perspective on what it means to attempt suicide.
When the eight people are asked why they attempted suicide, their responses are exceptionally diverse.
“When you get to that absolute low point, your brain makes you think certain things that aren’t quite rational,” says one woman.
“There was no other way out in my head,” says another man.
There does, however, seem to be some cases where people can identify a ‘reason’ for their decision. One man, named Bill, says that when he was a kid, he was involved in a shooting accident on a farm. He accidentally shot his best friend. Bill says the only way he felt he could make up for his friend’s death was to die himself.
Other people say sexual abuse, violence, and bullying all through high school contributed to their suicide attempt.
Perhaps the most profound insight is the way these people describe their judgment being clouded by their state of mind. "When you get into that deep dark place, no one matters, your kids, your family," says one man, while another woman explains, "it's like a dark tunnel, you can't see beyond here," signalling to the limited space in front of her.
What I had also never considered was the life-long impact of attempting, even for those who survive. Chris Fitzpatrick's suicide attempt meant he died for 45 minutes, cutting off oxygen to his brain. He now suffers from physical impairments that he'll have for the rest of his life. "I chose a way that hopefully wouldn't result in any scars or disability," he said. "But I was wrong."
Another woman described the horrible experience of throwing up in an emergency room, while another extended her arm to show the tattoos that now cover her scars.
There are emotional and social implications, too. A few weeks after one man's suicide attempt, he went to watch a football game at his local club. But another parent put in a complaint for him even being there.
"I copped so much shit from so many people," said another man of his experiences after his attempt. "And mostly from people who were meant to be my friends."
This episode of You Can't Ask That is a fascinating window into a world that's often romanticised and glamourised. Particularly at a time when a fictional story of suicide is at the forefront of many peoples minds, it's crucial we also see the reality. The complicated, painful, diverse reality.
A quote from Bill is perhaps most powerful in putting the 13 Reasons Why story line into perspective:
"The biggest regret I would have was, you know, [my family and friends] all probably asking questions, 'what have we done wrong to make Bill try and top himself?'"
It's this thought that still troubles Bill, and almost brings him to tears. Because his friends and family weren't to blame - no one was.
Mental health issues and suicide can't be reduced into discernible causes that lead to an inevitable trajectory. It's far more complicated than that. And those who survive an event that at the time, they didn't want to, are ultimately eternally grateful.
You can watch the full episode on iView here.
If this post brings up issues for you, or you just need someone to talk to, please call Lifeline on 131 114. You can also visit the Lifeline website here and the Beyond Blue website here.
Griefline also provides free telephone and online counselling support services to people dealing with mental health issues, suicide, carer support, terminal illness, unemployment, and more.
National: 1300 845 745 (from landlines)
National: (03) 9935 7400 (from mobiles)