‘The Young and the Restless’ Tackles Depression and Suicide: Why It’s Important

The long-running soap opera starring Melissa Claire Egan aims to highlight a recent increase in suicidal thoughts in the United States and to educate viewers on how to get help for themselves or help others at risk.

Medically Reviewed
Actress Melissa Claire Egan

Melissa Claire Egan, who plays Chelsea Lawson on The Young and the Restless, says the new episode is intended to help people learn how to help themselves or someone else with suicidal thoughts.

Xavier Collin/AP Photo

An estimated 11.4 million U.S. adults have had serious suicidal thoughts this year. That’s an increase of 664,000 people since last year, according to Mental Health America.

In a move to raise awareness of this issue, a long-running soap opera, The Young and the Restless, aired an episode this week in which a pivotal character, Chelsea Lawson (played by actress Melissa Claire Egan), seriously considers suicide as she struggles with depression and questions her self-worth.

Leading up to Chelsea’s suicide attempt, snippets of tough conversations she’s had with others, as well as much self-criticism, continually fill her mind.?

While out at a bar, Chelsea’s thoughts become so overwhelming that she heads upstairs to a rooftop and then to a ledge where her friend and former lover, Billy Abbott, sees her and stops her from taking her life. Billy helps Chelsea get back home to get some rest, and when she wakes up, Billy is with a therapist Chelsea knows who tells Chelsea she’s there to help her.

Egan says she first learned of the storyline several months ago in a meeting with the show’s head writer, Josh Griffith. “This was so important to us because it’s a real crisis going on in the world now,” says Egan.

She says she saw the opportunity to use the storyline to educate the show’s audience. “We wanted to be very responsible and very respectful,” she says.

Egan says that was the sentiment among the full team. “When our head writer spoke to me about what was going to happen [in the storyline] we both talked about our hope that we could really help people,” she says.?

As the storyline showing Chelsea’s pain has developed over the past several episodes, Egan says, she began to receive Twitter posts from viewers who seemed to see where the storyline might be headed. “I got a couple of [tweets] that were so heartbreaking, but people were also thanking me for portraying mental health in the right way.”

Why Accurate and Respectful Portrayal of Suicide Is So Important

To prepare for the episode, the show’s writers as well as Egan worked with Dan Reidenberg, PsyD, the managing director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention, who served as a mental health consultant to the show.?

Dr. Reidenberg coached the actors through what someone in a suicide crisis might be thinking and feeling. He also reviewed the script to ensure language was appropriate, as well as the actions and emotions of the character in crisis and those who were there to respond to the situation.

The choice of the show and the scenes that played out were very intentional, says Reidenberg. “This is on a show that is widely watched, and this happens to a character that is that important to the show,” Reidenberg explains.

Having the show address suicide in a respectful way helps to normalize conversations about it and fight stigma, he adds. Changing the conversation around suicide is a key goal of the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention (which is a call to action issued by the U.S. Surgeon General and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention [aka the Action Alliance] to help shape suicide prevention initiatives in the United States), says Reidenberg.

When TV shows like The Young and the Restless give accurate and respectful portrayals of suicide, this can encourage people with suicidal thoughts to seek help as well as change the way viewers think and talk about suicide, according to the Action Alliance.

Pivotal to the arc, says Reidenberg, were the scenes depicting how someone can help as a friend, and for people considering suicide to see that Chelsea did have a support system she could turn to. “Everybody was careful about making sure that this was done very authentically so that people could figure out what to do if they were in a similar situation,” says Reidenberg. “We showed Billy as passionate and sincere and ready to help her, to listen, and to offer his support.”

But when not portrayed thoughtfully, depictions of suicide in entertainment media can have serious consequences, such as contributing to suicide contagion, or exposure to material that increases viewers’ likelihood of completing suicide themselves, Action Alliance experts warn.

For instance, the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why — another show that depicts suicide — was found to be associated with an immediate increase in suicides beyond the generally rising trend among youths aged 10 to 19 within three months after the show’s release, according to a study published in May 2019 in JAMA Psychiatry. Suicide prevention organizations criticized the production for not following guidelines for responsible media depictions of suicide, the authors of the study noted.

Showing how and where to turn for help if someone is struggling, on the other hand, can be really powerful, particularly given that The Young and the Restless is a show that reaches a large audience, says Reidenberg. “It can begin a conversation that otherwise might not have taken place.”

Modeling How to Handle Difficult Situations in Positive Ways

It can be difficult to know what to do if you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts.

“Modeling how to handle those situations is something that could perhaps have a positive impact, such as someone asking themselves: ‘Okay, I'm feeling this way. Who can I reach out to?’” says Allison Young, MD, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the New York University Langone School of Medicine in New York City, and a psychiatry medical reviewer with Everyday Health.

Also, someone might see a portrayal of someone helping a friend in crisis and learn: “What are the things that I can do as a friend?” Dr. Young adds. In The Young and the Restless, Billy sees Chelsea head upstairs to the roof and follows her, allowing him to intervene before Chelsea could end her life.?

Someone who’s considering suicide may not always be quite as obvious about their intentions. Young says some subtle signs to be aware of are:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Getting one’s affairs in order, such as telling a loved one where the person keeps their important legal documents such as their will, without a logical reason for doing so
  • Trying to make amends with people around them
  • Seeking someone’s care for a pet?

Other signs to watch for that could indicate a risk for suicide, according to Mayo Clinic experts, are:

  • Talking about death or suicide
  • Obtaining a means of suicide
  • Having mood swings
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness or of being trapped
  • Using drugs or alcohol more than before
  • Having personality changes or feeling very anxious or agitated
  • Doing self-destructive things, such as reckless driving
  • Changing one’s normal routine, such as sleeping or eating habits

More Advice on Supporting Someone in Crisis

This episode of The Young and the Restless accurately explains what factors can lead someone to consider suicide and how a friend or loved one can help, says Young.?

But a real-life scenario might be more hectic or even dangerous than the one depicted on the show. “Pay attention to your own safety while also trying to protect the safety of the person at risk of harming themselves,” Young advises.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Safety First If someone appears to be preparing to harm themselves, the first thing you should do is to see if you can create a safe situation, says Young. If the other person’s actions put you at risk, you should call 911 for help, says Young.
  2. Offer Support If the situation appears safe for both of you, try to speak to the person in distress and let them know you’re there to help them, and then reach out to a professional. “That can be a professional they already see, or a call to a crisis hotline,” Young says. “Or if the person will go with you, head to the emergency room. I’ve had people come into the ER with a friend and say they don’t really feel like being here right now, but they agreed to come.” You don’t have to be a doctor to help someone with suicidal thoughts, says Reidenberg — you just have to be available to listen.
  3. Seek Input?It’s also a good idea to have the person who’s at risk be included in the decisions being made to help them, says Young. For example, you could tell them, she says: “I’ll call the crisis line or 911, or let’s take a cab to the emergency room. What would make you most comfortable?” Engage with the person as much as they are willing, says Young.

And if you’ve helped someone who’s considered or attempted suicide, you may want to either talk to a loved one or seek professional help, too, to process what happened, Young says.

If you or a loved one is considering suicide, dial 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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