Disability, Mental Illness, and Me Before You

Something has been troubling me about the Me Before You controversy.

For reasons that would fill a whole other post, I look at things through the lens of mental illness. When I hear the word “suicide,” I think “depression.” So when I hear about a movie in which one of the main characters dies by suicide, I assume depression is, if not the only theme, then at least a key one of several.

Yet this theme is surprisingly absent from the many pieces that have been written by and about disability activists protesting the film’s damaging messages. I’ve read more than twenty. Fewer than a quarter make any reference whatsoever to depression or mental illness.

Now there are quite a few reasons to criticize this movie, and some of them have nothing to do with the character’s suicide.

  • Casting:
“The permission of Hollywood to let actors “crip up” as disabled people is similar to the process of letting actors “black up” that ended decades ago. Now, sometimes a non-disabled actor is needed, like Eddie Redmayne in The Theory Of Everything, but I’m still left empty at Sam Claflin being cast where it’s simply not needed, while my friends who are disabled actors can’t get roles.”
  • Stereotypes:
“Yes, disability can be a messy, agonizing, and emotionally trying part of life, but far too many mainstream outlets portray disability in ways far from everyday reality for the millions of people who live in disabled bodies. We can thrive. We can leave our homes, hold jobs, have families, love, laugh, and live our lives.”
  • Objectification:
“It is important to understand what Will amounts to in this story. He is nothing more than a plot device. He serves only to be a life lesson to the real main character, Louisa. This is another thing people with disabilities have to put up with on a daily basis. Being made into other people’s inspiration porn.”

Yes, yes, and yes; these are important points that movie makers and movie viewers need to hear. I also agree in principle with the point that most of the protest has centered around: that the character’s suicide is deeply disturbing and conveys dangerous messages.

My concern is that by and large, the discussion of this last point has presented an overly simplistic analysis of the problem. Some of the more thoughtfully written pieces do acknowledge and grapple with the intersection of disability and depression (I recommend this one and this one especially). But in most cases, the possibility of depression being a factor is either glossed over or ignored entirely. And this omission in itself is dangerous.

Nearly 7% of U.S. adults and more than 11% of U.S. adolescents experience a major depressive episode in a given year. Depression affects men and women, people of all races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, and yes the disabled as well as the non-disabled.

A character who is both quadriplegic and depressed is not inherently offensive. And if that character does not receive mental health treatment (as Will of Me Before You doesn’t), suicidal ideation is not a stretch. Yet some of the commentaries, while rightly concerned with the message that a life with disability is not worth living, inadvertently perpetuate another damaging message.

One of the most pervasive and dangerous myths about depression is that it is all in one’s mind, that it can be shed just by improving one’s attitude. This belief prevents sufferers from seeking treatment and their loved ones from giving appropriate support. Too much of the commentary implies that the problem is Will’s limited perspective about living with a disability, without acknowledging that untreated depression distorts people’s perspectives beyond their control.

What is my point? Too much of our discourse dispenses with nuance in favor of sound bites. Too many discussions leave out important perspectives that enrich understanding. When we pursue an advocacy agenda, let us pause from time to time to ask whose voices are still missing.

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