Saturday, February 23, 2013

Cam's suicide in Degrassi (or rather, how it is handled) makes me Mad

Greetings, Mad Nation and all visitors thereto.

The Weekly Madness has been out of commission for a year and a half, but this one event may finally be enough to rouse my advocacy from its long stage of dormancy and bring it back into weekly action. I am overflowing with a Mad response to this week's episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation, and so I cannot help but share it with all of my fine readers, present past and future.

Where do I even begin in analyzing this event?

First, a bit of context: if you don't already know, Degrassi is one of the most progressive shows on TV right now, being one of the (if not the singular) only TV shows to feature an out trans character in a prominent light. The show is lauded for its mature and sensible approaches to many issues previously considered way too controversial for TV of any age, much less TV for teenagers, such as Degrassi. The show certainly has its moments - its ups and downs, things it gets right and things it gets wrong - but overall I have come to expect a certain level of quality and, above all else, progressivism in their handling of controversial material.

So I was rather disappointed when in their most recent episode, the suicide of a character was announced, and the seemingly clear-cut solution was "Don't blame yourselves kiddies, just go to therapy!"

The thing is, there may certainly be situations where a suicide is completely random. I have attempted suicide before and I would pay thousands of dollars for a good explanation as to why; I cannot easily place any amount of blame on any party, animate or otherwise (except maybe the movie Twilight....don't ask). But I believe myself to be a very rare case, and that generally suicides are precipitated by specific events. A person starts off with hope, and hope prevents suicide in most rational human beings; it is events, filtered through a depressed awareness of reality, that gradually chip away at hope until suicide becomes an option. These events may be relatively innocuous and well-intentioned actions by others that cause unintended harm, or they may be violent, harmful incursions that, intentionally or not, break the suffering individual's hopes even further.

Given that this is the case, any situation where suicide is present bears investigation: what did the people who knew the person do, positively or negatively, that may have affected the situation? Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to suggest that anyone found to have a causal link to a suicide should be prosecuted (though I do believe that right should be reserved in very powerful cases); but I do think that a certain degree of responsibility needs to be obtained in order for real progress to be made. Suicide happens when a person feels they have been failed by an entire community; if there is anyone in the world they can turn to, they generally will. What needs to happen in the wake of such an event is that people need to understand why they were not turned to for help; or, in many cases more probably, what they did wrong when they were turned to for help.

In Degrassi, two students consider themselves responsible for this incident. One, who in my opinion does bear significant responsibility (seeing how miserable the suicidal student is, he yells at him, belittles him, and demands for him to change) is convinced by a friend that instead of feeling responsible, he should go to a counselor and become part of a task force to "make sure this never happens again." I am waiting anxiously, though with very low expectations, to see just what that task force will end up looking like in future episodes, and whether any real, substantive change will take place as a result. Regardless, I am disappointed that a counselor is seen as an adequate solution; how quick his friends are to point him to a stranger who knows nothing about his situation or his true feelings on the matter, a stranger he will probably be more capable of lying to in order to avoid feeling his true pain. The issue of seeing a counselor is actually NEVER problematized on this show, which is another grievous error, but I won't get into it at length at this moment.

The other student who feels responsible told the suicidal student to "get out of Maya's life," referring to a mutual love interest; he said this because the suicidal student recently cold-clocked him, revealing himself to be violent and unstable. Though it was a mean-spirited rebuttal, it was also meant as protection for a third party and was somewhat understandable given their relationship. Personally I feel he bears little to no responsibility, but that he should have someone to hear him out on the subject; instead he is told that he is stupid for feeling any responsibility (though it isn't clear if we are to take this seriously) and that is apparently the end of it. Again, I am anxious to see how this turns out.

But most painful of all is the overall handling of the student body reaction to this event, which culminates in a candle-lit vigil where Maya says, basically, "This is stupid, he was selfish, we shouldn't mourn him, he doesn't deserve this, no one should feel responsible;" the counter to this is a weak but insistent "He was sick and feelings are just feelings."

Neither of these viewpoints are appropriate or correct. Suicide is a complicated thing, the culmination of an individual and their struggles and the way the community responds to them. It is not a question of being sick, but rather a question of being failed. What people implicitly refuse to acknowledge in the wake of suicide is that to kill oneself might ever be advisable; they assume that to kill oneself is always wrong and therefore the suicidal individual must be "sick" or "mentally ill." They are wrong: suicide is sometimes appropriate, when there are really no better alternatives available, and a person is not necessarily "sick" for choosing it when faced with that decision. It is possible they evaluated the situation incorrectly, of course, and I believe in Cam's case he did, but on the other hand no one was really offering him any real help except, maybe, for Maya (and earlier episodes suggest she is more interested in making out with him than figuring out what's really bothering him). Was Cam a bit misguided in his decision? Perhaps. But others contributed to his misdirection with their own insensitivity and this NEEDS to not be swept under the rug. We can't wait for the magical some day when "It gets better;" we need to make it better in the here and now, before it's too late.

Part of what really bugs me about this is something even more fundamental, though: Cam did have options, and he was aware of them, but he did not have a chance to pursue them before the writers decreed he would kill himself. This, to me, indicates a fundamental failure on the part of the writers to understand both mental health and their own characters; that, out of ideas on how to develop a complex and interesting teen with a grab bag of emotional struggles, they simply used suicide as a plot stop. Not only is this terrible writing, but it underscores the fundamental assumption of the writers, which is that suicide is inherently unreasonable. That only someone who is unaware of their options would ever do it.

Cam probably could have solved most of his problems by quitting hockey and being allowed to go home. It would have been difficult but not impossible. No exposition is given to us whatsoever to explain his decision to commit suicide; it simply happens one day, rather suddenly at that. Because of this we are left to assume that it was a rash, impulsive decision that indeed can only be explained by sickness or selfishness, when in reality neither of these usually motivates a suicide. A much more powerful effect could have been produced had the writers showed us Cam's attempts at escape: had they shown us how he tried to go home but was rebuffed; how he had tried counseling and medicine and found them both useless or unavailable; had he, like most people in his situation, tried literally everything until there was nothing left to try but suicide. That is infinitely more realistic; it is a statistical truism that only 9 out of 10 people who are depressed respond positively to therapy and/or medicine, so an entire 10% of people who are depressed can be assumed unhelpable by such things. This woefully underrepresented percentage is erased from existence by suicides staged like Cam's, and I do believe such people make up a larger percentage of suicides than any others; people who are genuinely trying to be saved and find that nothing is available.

This is why I denounce "it gets better" and why I am very upset at how Degrassi has handled this issue so far; like with many other issues of mental health, the "progressive" aspect of the show tends to be lagging very far behind on an actual understanding of the state of discourse on suicide, at least within the community of the mentally marginal. I can only hope that in future episodes they dissect this event more intelligently, but I'm not holding my breath.

Please leave thoughts and comments below; hopefully we'll be blogging regularly once a week now.