It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … my therapist?

by Thomas Ellis, PsyD, ABPP on February 24, 2011 · 0 comments

in suicide

My colleague and fellow blogger Cody Dolan recently sent me information about an approach to suicide prevention that, as far as I know, is unprecedented: comic books. OK, I know, the correct term nowadays is graphic novel, and I’m giving away my age by using the wrong term (Disclosure: When I was a kid, we actually called them “funny books.” I know – old!).

In reality, this is more than a semantic distinction: The level of artistry and complexity in these publications is a quantum leap beyond anything I saw when I was young, and they don’t seem to hesitate to wade into some pretty deep waters.

My reaction to Superman and Captain America coming to the aid of suffering people on the brink of suicide is pretty straightforward: Why not?

As a suicide researcher, I can tell you there are lots of potential why nots, the main one being that that well-intentioned, feel-good efforts to prevent suicide (such as elaborate memorial services and public tributes to the deceased) can sometimes actually make things worse, because young people (in particular) tend to be vulnerable to modeling effects from role models: We tend to imitate those we admire, especially if we don’t feel good about ourselves as we are.

Cursing Cobain

That is why many of us were actually relieved when, in 1994, Courtney Love angrily cursed at her recently deceased husband Kurt Cobain after he took his own life, reminding everyone at the gathering that problems can be solved without resorting to such desperate measures. Researchers later found no indication of imitation suicides in the grunge rock capital (Seattle) in the months following Cobain’s death.

To the credit of the Marvel company, rather than sensationalize or glorify suicide, they send a message that adversity can be overcome and that there is nothing shameful (indeed, something heroic) about seeking help. Their listing of the national suicide hotline (800-273-TALK) will in all likelihood save lives. Well done.

Superheroes and role models

Finally, as a psychologist, I must say (speaking of role models) that it’s tempting to identify with these superheroes. It’s a flattering comparison, but unfortunately any similarities break down quickly. We helpers are getting better at what we do (see my previous blog entry), but we are well aware of our limitations and vulnerabilities.

As much as we, the public and our patients might wish otherwise, therapists have no capes, masks, silver bullets or super powers. We have no x-ray vision to read minds and no super strength to bring about changes through sheer force of will. Ironically, to be helpful, we need help from the very people we’re trying to help. And getting a little help from the funny books certainly doesn’t hurt.

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