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The Simpsons Get's Political - SE01 E03 - Homer's Odyssey

The Simpsons Get's Political  - SE01 E03 - Homer's Odyssey

Script synopsis: After being fired from the nuclear power plant for negligence Homer sinks into a depression as he struggles to find work. One evening he decides he is a drain on his family and goes to attempt suicide by jumping off a bridge. Discovering his suicide note just in time the family rush to stop him. They are almost run over as they cross a road to save him, leading him to run and sweep them out of the path of oncoming traffic. After observing that the bridge should have a stop sign Homer becomes a safety activist. Succeeding in having any danger in Springfield, no matter how minor signposted or made safe. It doesn't take long however for the safety elephant in the room to rear its head and he sets his sights on the Nuclear Power Plant - Homer faces a crisis of conscience when Mr. Burns tries to silence him with a new position and a raise. He takes the job, and this is how he becomes Safety Inspector at the plant.

Issue raised: The alarmingly rates of suicide of the UK, especially amongst men, and the impact of suicide on those left behind.

In 2015, the last year for which figures are available, there where 6,188 suicides in the United Kingdom. This figure is appallingly high given that suicide by it's very nature is absolutely preventable.

Each one of these people have left behind a family who loved them, people who cared about them, and a life in front of them - a figure can never tell the full story of the experiences, characters and potential that the world has lost. Nor can it say anything of the pain and suffering of the families and friends affected, or the personal torment of those who chose to end their lives.

6,188 people is such a high number that it is difficult to comprehend the individuals involved and give full consideration to the different motivations that they had for taking that most final of decisions. But it is worth repeating that every single one of these deaths was preventable.

This number is even more troubling given that it is widely acknowledged(2) that the true number for suicide per year is likely to be a lot higher than the official number reported due(3) to the sensitive nature of the subject, and the fact that even today there is a substantial societal taboo and a great deal of shame that surrounds the issue. The fact that this is the case is the second tragedy around suicide.

In their lifetimes more people suffer from a severe episode of mental illness than will have dandruff(4). A significant portion of mental health problems have as a symptom thoughts of suicide or self harm(5). A substantial portion of those suffering from mental health issues will make a full recovery(6).

Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issues(7), in the United Kingdom, and in both cases the sufferer will likely experience thoughts of self harm or suicide. What it is important to remember when suffering from suicidal impulses is that it is a symptom of an illness that it is perfectly likely one will recover from if one gives it time and seeks help.

We can use the problems that Homer experiences as an illustration of this point. Homer's depression was brought on by a significant negative life experience. He lost his job - it's difficult to imagine that not impacting on someones well being. It is not uncommon for these kinds of traumatic experiences to result in depression and suicidal thoughts. The issue is that when a person feels depressed they will feel isolated and hopeless - and may find it difficult to rationalise their situation and see a way forward. Suicide for many will feel like the only way out.

It's not.

The reaction of the rest of the Simpsons family upon discovering Homer's suicide note is to rush to save him and to convince him that the negative thoughts he was having about himself were not true and that his belief that the family would be better off without him were like-wise not true. The shame is that for 6,188 people in the UK in 2015, nobody got to them in time to tell them the same thing.

The way that Homer manages to overcome his depression is also instructive, given that hopelessness and a lack of purpose is what triggered his depression his choice to give himself a purpose and to work to make positive changes is something that those who take a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) will be encouraged to do.

Roughly speaking, the idea behind CBT is that the causes and the symptoms of depression and anxiety can form a self-perpetuating cycle. Therefore, if a symptom of depression is apathy and a lack of desire for social interaction, as is the case with Homer. The way to break the cycle is to force oneself to be active and interact socially.

The philosophy behind cognitive behavioural therapy, that conscious choices to make oneself better can lead to recovery may not be initially appealing on a philosophical level. It is however clinically effective, which is surely what matters.

The philosophical objection is that CBT can seem like it is blaming the patient for their symptoms - having undergone a programme of CBT however I don't believe this to be what it is saying. The root causes of mental illness and suicidal thoughts may be whatever they are. However, it is not possible to change the past or our emotions toward past events. As emotions are largely involuntary.

What we do have the power to change is how we react to our emotions. It is highly likely that the structure of society and the pressures of late capitalism are a significant contributor to the high prevalence of mental health issues. CBT does not seek to address these however, and moves to get the sufferer to improve their situation - and offers strategies for coping with traumatic or difficult life events.

Some may see this as polishing the cutlery on a sinking ship. However, the one theorist, the brilliant Mark Fisher, I have heard or read exploring this theme, leading me to assume he rejected CBT as appropriate for himself, took his own life in January. On a purely selfish level depriving me of a theorist I admired and leaving behind a family, friends and many more who admired and enjoyed his unique take on the world(8).

His criticism, that we treat individual cases of depression whilst ignoring the structural causes is valid, but this does not take away from the fact that what someone suffering depression needs is help now. Furthermore, that it is quite possible to treat both the symptoms and the causes of mental health issues.

The conclusion of the episode, when Homer is offered his job back, might have seemed hopelessly optimistic to Homer during his darkest hour. What it is worth remembering, is that looked at objectively, that a former Nuclear Technician with a young family, a large circle of friends and enough potential to be an astronaut will find his feet again, is not optimistic - it's rational to assume.

In our darkest hours, we're all Homer.

If you need to talk, call the Samaritans: 116 123. Please.


(1)Figures from the Samaritans - here.

(2) Ibid.

(3)This is not the only reason, or even the most significant reason, but it is certainly one of the reasons. The subjective nature of coronary reports is not something I feel qualified to speak about - or something I am particularly animated to write about.

(4) Poster from which this claim is taken - here.

(5) Link - here.

(6) Ibid.


(8) I have to say I don't know if Mark Fisher was undergoing treatment at the time of his death - what I am seeking to say however is that his criticisms of CBT can be read as valid. CBT is however available free on the NHS immediately. A radical programme to re-orientate the structure of society may not be the most practical solution here and now - although I add my voice to Fishers in calling for it.


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