Jeremy Clyman Psy.D.

Reel Therapy

The Protest of "Me Before You"

The psychology of self-assisted suicide

Posted Jun 07, 2016

An interesting thing happened when I went to watch “Me Before You,” a romance-drama about the relationship between a loving caretaker (Lou) and a wealthy young adult (Will) who suffers quadriplegic paralysis after a road accident.

The movie was being passionately protested by an advocacy group for people with disabilities. They were handing out pamphlets.

Side note: If you are an advocacy group protesting a movie, please do not hand movie-goers pamphlets that spoil the film’s ending...

In this vein, if you are reading this bog and plan to see “Me Before You,” then please feel free to hold off on the post so as to enjoy the film’s emotionally riveting plot twist in unspoiled fashion.

** spoiler alert **

“Me Before You” is about how Will becomes suicidally depressed following the traumatic event, and never full adjusts to his new and inherently limited life in the subsequent two and a half years. Early on in this post-adjustment process, Will commits to a plan to kill himself. He promises his loving parents six more months of life before follow through. During this time, Lou enters his life as a formally hired caretaker and takes wonderfully loving strides to re-engage him with a life he could deem worth living.

She fails.

In the end, Will follows through on his suicide plan with the help of Dignitas, a swiss-based assisted suicide organization.

My first point is that this film did not do what the protest group appeared to worriedly claim it did; that is, “Me Before You” did not deliver the message that people with disabilities are a burden on their families; nor did it not promote the view that disabled people are better off dead, or stereotype/misrepresent the disability (quadriplegia, in this case).

If this film takes a political stand, it does so on the issue of patient-assisted suicide.

Patient-assisted suicide is about two things - it is about one’s intentional decision to kill oneself; and whether or not one’s quality of life has truly and permanently plummeted to such a low point that the suicide decision seems fair and objective.

While I would not entirely agree with some other complaints by the protest groups - that the film advocates for suicide and promotes a view that people are better off dead than disabled - I do think the film bumbled a competent exploration of patient-assisted suicide and showed Will to be an individual in the throes of an unhealthy decision.

Will, as a character, lived a very high quality life trajectory, to start. He had it all; charm, good lucks, intelligence, and countless other positive personality traits. And he was loved and supported by a prominent family with seemingly bottomless wealth. After his paralysis, Will’s life was not just as rich and resourced as a paralyzed life could possibly be, he also had his mind fully intact; and access to cutting-edge technology and round-the-clock care. In short, it was a decent quality of life considering the circumstances.

But Will never saw it this way; he dropped his career, withdrew from his social circle, barely maintained healthy routines, and guarded himself from a burgeoning love with Lou. 

His outlook and behavior, post-accident, showed all the signs of major depression (sadness, hopelessness, social withdrawal, loss of pleasure in life, fatigue, poor appetite/sleep, suicidality).

Will became clinically depressed, as a result and outcome of his difficulties grieving and coping with the loss of his previous (admittedly awesome) life, and the relatively more limited future that lay predictably in store.

What is confusing and somewhat annoying about this movie is that there is no direct or useful conversation around patient-assisted suicide or depression themes. The main character clearly has depression, but you would never know that from watching the movie.

Talk about a plot hole.

As for the political issue, Will declares his desire to die, and while  all his loved ones work to voice their distressed consternation and validate his expressed desires, there is very little examination and questioning of the quality of Will’s thinking and decision-making (with the exception of Lou’s frenzied and unrequited attempts to debate toward the end).

Will was not doing the basic things needed to build a life worth living. And he killed himself not because he was living a disabled life but because he was viewing his disabled life through a depressive perceptual filter.

I should caveat Will’s irrationally depressed decision to suicide with the fact that his quality of life seemed significantly harmed by ongoing medical difficulties. Will appeared to suffer daily bouts of pain and frequent hospitalizations due to an easy susceptibility to infections. However, the film was vague, if not melodramatically avoidant of this issue, so it remains unclear just how much physical duress he was in. Regardless, my sense was the medical difficulties disrupted Will’s quality of life sporadically and minimally - not enough to warrant suicide to be a well-reasoned and justified conclusion.

Like most issues, this matter should be considered on a spectrum. At one end, the decision to facilitate the suicide of a highly suffering individual is objective, compassionate and understandable; at the other end, the decision is irrational, impulsive and misguided.

I think Will’s decision falls uncomfortable close to the bad end of this spectrum, and the film does a poor job explaining why.

Will should not have been allowed to follow through on giving up, because his quality of life did not dip sufficiently low; he had too many personality strengths, environmental supports and opportunities for growth. There was not enough pain, distress, and practical limitation. 

As a psychologist. I would say that Will was not overwhelmed by unavoidable, inevitable and perpetual mental and physical pain, so much as he failed to adapt to the traumatic event and major life transition inherent in his quadriplegic disability.

This context makes the ending not just sad, but distressing...and it is a comment on unchecked depression more than it is the value of a disabled life.