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Why 'Suicide Squad' Scares Me as Someone With a Mental Illness

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Anyone who knows me on even a casual basis is likely to know I am a big fan of movies and superheroes. When the two meet, I’m on board, excited, and most likely in the theatre at least once on opening weekend. I am someone who keeps his finger on the pulse of the movie industry, and have a pretty good grasp on which films will be hitting theaters from now until 2020. I think cinema, in both its tent-pole, big- budget, shared-universe, four-quadrant-appeal form, as well as the the independently-produced, foreign-made, niche-market variety, can be a place of honesty, humor, and hope. It can break our hearts in ways that matter, and it can make them lighter, too. It can satisfy our thirst for adventure, it can make the world seem smaller and bigger at once, it can be a voice for those often unheard – and it can be a lot of fun, too.

I love movies, and I’ve been looking forward to summer 2016 for several years now, as it has promised (and delivered) several new favorites. But I’ve been bracing myself for August because of one movie I think a lot of people would expect me to be really excited for. I’ve been terrified about the release of “Suicide Squad.”

For years, I’ve wrestled with mental illness. I’ve struggled with anxiety from a young age and had multiple devastating seasons of depression. Not only has mental illness affected my ability to enjoy or experience life, it has threatened to end that life. For my age (24) and nationality (Canadian), suicide is the second-leading cause of death, killing more of us than anything except car crashes. One out of every five Canadians who die between ages 15 and 24 do so by suicide. It is an effective disease, and it’s a battle I don’t have the privilege of growing tired of.

The premise of the movie “Suicide Squad” and the DC comic books it’s adapted from, is that a bunch of villains are recruited to fight for the good guys, but as they are morally unreliable, they have bombs implanted in their bodies so in the event they go rogue, they can be blown up by the noble ones who recruited them. It’s not, strictly speaking, suicide, but alliterations sell well, and DC Comics has a spotty history in its approach to mental health (case in point: a bestselling Batman video game series in which our hero beats up inmates at a mental asylum). The larger franchise has often been, at best, callous towards the reality of mental health, and at other times, used it as a scapegoat, a playground, a punchline. And so, when Squad was announced, I braced myself for the inevitability of my pain, the real struggle of so many, being both mocked and appropriated at once.

As the film approaches, my fears have been, in many ways, eclipsed by the media machine pumping out hype. Jared Leto has prompted a steady stream of news stories for his super-method, boundary-pushing, sexually-predatory and (of course) “crazy” performance as the Joker. Headlines litter my feed about the “psychotic cheerleader” Harley Quinn, who is treated as both a sex object and a subject of derision for her lack of mental stability. The film’s director reportedly told Cara Delevinge to strip naked and howl at the moon to get into her role, because I guess that’s the bar you have to clear to prove you understand the messy world of mental illness. Each advertisement I’ve failed to avoid has celebrated the anarchy, the insanity, and the core aesthetic of the film is “Come see how funny and f*cked up these people are!”

I don’t take issue with these things on the basis of political correctness. It’s not about that. This is an issue because mental illness is real and the stakes are real and they are nothing if not high.

I am pressing forward in a story that has been undermined by a disease I didn’t choose, and walking with others in similar stories – ones easier to keep silent and which are, in their silence, dangerous. There is a thick stigma surrounding mental health in our culture (perhaps most cultures) and the cost it is having is the highest possible: People are dying. And this stuff doesn’t help.

As I sit down in a theater or check social media these days, I’m scared. I’m apprehensive because it’s likely I’m going to encounter the press around this film — because it hurts me. I’m sitting here, and I’m scared to discuss this – to be honest about the effect media can have on me as a hurting individual and as someone who cares for those struggling. It hits me like a brick, its presence is pervasive, and I’m fearful of articulating that. This film and the enthusiasm around it makes me scared that people hate me. That the reality of my pain is a barrier to other people’s fun, and a thing studios are willing to exploit for the fun of those fortunate enough to have healthy minds. This fear tells me I should shut up and be quietly ill because I’m killing the mood.

My friend Holly is one the most articulate, bold and soft-hearted people I know, and the person who has taught me the most about the conversations we are having and not having and should be having about justice and privilege. She told me once that appropriation is when you take something from a group of people and use it in such a way that there is no recognition for the pain of those people, no room for them to participate in the very thing you have taken from them. She was speaking, as a Black Canadian about cultural appropriation, and I asked her later whether mental health can be appropriated, too. She nodded. “Absolutely.”

I believe in cinema as a medium. I believe in stories as a method of connection, and in a less noble, more pragmatic sense, I believe in stories as a means of escapism. But more than my belief in those things, I am convinced we have a responsibility to tell stories, particularly those of people who are struggling, in a way that represents them well, invites honesty, and bestows dignity. There have been incredible portrayals of the reality of depression and the brutality of suicide for those in darkness and those left behind. There have been cheap, shallow performances, lazily using the trope of mental illness for characters not worth giving a third dimension to – hollow, hurtful moments in otherwise decent films.

And then there are films like “Suicide Squad” that ask us to suspend or compartmentalize our compassion for those struggling with this pernicious, exhausting, isolating demon that lives somewhere in their minds and souls. A film that requires me to check my sense of self-worth at the door, to sit among dozens, hundreds of people, as they celebrate a spectacle built on stereotypes, laughing at untrue moments meant to represent a people who are stuck in moments. It appropriates the experience of millions of good people, and attributes that noble struggle to murderers and sociopaths. It leaves no room for those struggling in the audience to identify in a healthy or empowering way.

And I think we can do a lot better than this.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

Originally published: August 2, 2016
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