Mental Health and Superheroes: The Problem with Labeling Sacrifice as Suicide

pa kent superman batmanContent warning: This article discusses mental health, suicide, and depression.

We, the fans, love our fandoms, so much that it’s possible for us to lose sight of the societal and personal impacts of our critical analyses. The past year has been a Thunderdome of fans who like or dislike the approach to characters they love. We’ve seen it in discussions of whether Superman would kill to save the Earth, whether Hermoine Granger could be African-English, and the constant erasure of Asian actors in stories about Asian characters. There are fun debates, too, like whether Buffy should have been with Angel or Spike. Today, I want to explain another way fans delve deep into love for fictional characters: Diagnosing their mental health.

I began reading through a review of Batman v. Superman and, I’ll admit, the piece was so poorly constructed and bloated, I couldn’t finish it. I didn’t save the link, because I was too furious. I stopped at a part where the author said Pa Kent (the Costner version) clearly had been a depression sufferer his entire life and that’s why (*spoiler*) he sacrificed himself during the flood.


What the hell?

I’m used to everyone saying the dark, brooding version of both Batman and Superman seem depressed, but Pa Kent? And why? Because he died at the end of his story? Sorry, but no. That’s not what death and sacrifice are about.

If we take the most popular sacrifice story in Western history, Jesus Christ, and look at that hyperbolic plot, no one would say the big JC was suffering from depression. One may posit that anyone believing they’re the son of God is in fact mentally ill, but that’s another conversation for another time. It’s not depression. Equating self-sacrifice which benefits/saves the greater good is not remotely similar to people with suicidal thoughts.

jean grey gif

If Pa Kent was the first time I had seen a fan-critic claim a character suffered from depression because their story ended in their death, I might not have noticed, but this is something that comes up repeatedly. Death is something we see a lot in our entertainment; however, equating self-sacrifice and depression means plots like Jean Grey drowning herself or Captain America jumping in front of a bullet to save someone else are not heroic, but rather suicidal. While Jean may have been driven mad eventually by the Phoenix Force, Captain American is considered a perfect specimen. Self-sacrifice is seen in every great hero story. It’s been on Once Upon a Time, The Matrix, Superman, and even in The Lord of the Rings where characters are ready to die for their cause.

Doing something despite the fear of the outcome is the definition of courage, not the definition of depression. Equating self-sacrificing characters with depression is not only risking a review being misaligned with the creators’ intentions, it’s also irresponsible. If the review is seen by even ten readers, there are significant odds that the critic is addressing the topic of suicide to someone who is plagued by suicidal ideations. This topic should not be addressed carelessly when considering the following statistics:

“In 2014, an estimated 15.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States. had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. This number represented 6.7% of all U.S. adults.” —National Institute of Mental Health

First of all, the two character traits heroism and depression with suicidal tendencies are not mutually exclusive. These traits could perhaps be in the same character or real life person, but a hero willing to give up their own life is nothing at all like wanting to end their life on purpose. A person with depression is not necessarily a risk taker. That behavior lies more on the side of mania, something seen in people with bipolar disorder.

Second of all, let’s address the elephant in the room: suicide is not about being selfish. It’s about wanting to end the pain and suffering. It’s truly believing that the people and world around you would be better off if you weren’t there.

A heroic self-sacrifice happens in stories when the character is out of other heroic, brave, and courageous options. It’s usually done because it’s a more expedient solution to a problem than trying to solve a global war, which could take fifty years, that no one wants to read. Or the character had to act so quickly, and they literally didn’t have time to think of other options.

A suicidal person doesn’t see other options at all. Ever. They need to be convinced on a daily basis that their life means something. A hero, on the other hand, knows exactly what they’re giving up through their self-sacrifice.

One could say that it’s heroic to keep waking up every day and doing what’s expected, but I, as a person with depression, don’t think that’s how heroism is traditionally defined. I suppose someone could stretch the definition to be extra broad and claim a person is heroic for taking care of their children and making sure they aren’t running into a busy street or playing with guns. I still call that “responsible” and not “heroic.”

All kinds of people suffer with depression and suicidal ideation. A heroic character could be one of those people, but it’s not a black and white label to slap on characters just because the end result is that they died (and with a comic book death, we will usually see the character again in spirit, reboot, or through resurrection).

We’ve become more aware of PTSD that is specific to people in combat. That may be where the misunderstanding that equates heroism’s self-sacrifice with depression is coming from. PTSD is complex; there isn’t one checklist to go through when diagnosing—in fact, there are eight sets of criteria. Military jobs are stressful from the start. Add combat or other tragedy, and now the person could be experiencing a life they had never imagined. Soldiers and rescue workers are heroes with self-sacrifice built into their job descriptions; they could come out with PTSD or already have depression, but again, these are not equivalent to their bravery. That would be like saying every defense personnel member is suicidal rather than courageous.

If a reviewer is diagnosing a character, are they doing so for the right reasons or because they don’t understand what would make a person put their own lives at risk? Go back and watch the DC’s Justice League animated episodes about Ace from the Royal Flush gang and compare her personality to others. Ace is tremendous in complexity, and it seems clear that she would be considered suicidal with PTSD (tortured past; cannot see any other option; she believes she is the cause of distress to others) while characters like Supergirl, Kitty Pryde, and Captain America are heroic and put themselves at risk to save people despite the value of their own lives.

psychology of superheroes coverFurther, depression is not the only condition that causes people to feel suicidal. Unless the reviewer has studied the field of mental health, their comic book fan judgment comes off pretentious and grossly insensitive whether intended or not.

Dr Travis Langley coverThere are experts who take on comic book characters and “diagnose” them through years of studying the stories and through researching the fields of mental health. There is more than one book on Batman about this very thing, such as The Psychology of Batman by Dr. Travis Langley. There’s also the team of medical professionals behind Broadcast Thought who tour comic cons and present panels. And then there’s Dr. Drea Letamendi, a practicing psychologist who has a podcast deconstructing Gotham characters and stories from her medical perspective. She’s also consulted with comic book writers on the subject, most notably on Batgirl. There are plenty more books like this on Captain America and Iron Man, Star Wars, and The Walking Dead, but you know how to use Amazon.

A flippant review because someone didn’t like a movie or plot device is hardly the place to lay such an important topic of discussion, especially when it’s not presented as a study about the character, but rather an off-handed remark about why a father like Pa Kent would give up his own life to save his family.


Broadcast Thought:
Drea Letamendi’s Under the Mask Podcast:
Dr. Travis Langley on Twitter:
Vodka O’Clock episode with Live Through Founder Dese’Rae:
Vodka O’Clock episode with Dr. Drea Letamendi on PTSD:
NIMH page on Depression:

Amber Love

Amber Love

Writer, podcaster, model, cosplayer. Published by Red Stylo Media, Northwest Press, and more.