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There are many moments in life which are reinforced or underpinned by a lyric in a song or a simple, yet effective line in a film.
It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those films for me; it’s a timeless classic and valuable in a way which resonates with me even now, years after I first saw it.
Although it’s regarded as a Christmas film, the plot goes much deeper than the holidays, unapologetically exploring mental health and its consequences in great detail.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane to watch the trailer:
Premiering in 1946, the film follows George Bailey, played by James Stewart, as he contemplates taking his own life on Christmas Eve. George is a family man and a successful banker until a twist of fate leads to his company losing thousands of dollars. As a result, George is left fearing for his future.
Unsure of what to do, and afraid that he’s about to let his family down by getting sent to jail, George does the only thing that he thinks is possible at that moment in time.
The desperate man goes to a bar and prays, unable to confide in his wife and children because at that time – and even now – men weren’t expected to show their emotions. Instead, they were expected to be strong and told to ‘man up’ whenever they appeared ‘weak’.
While wiping his face as he sits at the bar, he quietly says,:
Show me the way, I’m at the end of my rope.
George’s gradual decline from powerful businessman and loving family man into one who is at his wits end is confirmed. He can see no way out of the situation he has found himself in. He gets in his car – drunk – and drives to a bridge, where he contemplates ending his life by jumping into the water below.
Enter: Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class and George’s very own Guardian angel. He quite literally steps in, jumping in the choppy waters so the banker will abort his mission in favour of saving what he sees as another soul in need of help.
As the two men sit together afterwards, George utters the words:
I suppose it would have been better if I’d never been born at all.
This is where the premise of the film comes to the fore: George Bailey – a depressed man contemplating suicide – gets shown what the world would be like if he truly didn’t exist.
Although this is a fiction, George’s situation is tragically close to real-life. Every year, one in four people will experience a mental health problem, while one in five adults has considered taking their own life at some point.
The Suicide Statistics Report, conducted by Samaritans, found that men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women in the UK, with the highest suicide rate attributed to men between the ages of 45 and 49.
Will Aylward, life coach and author of Becoming Unstuck – which he describes as a ‘step by step guide to taking charge of your life’ – struggled with his mental health for years before he began to open up about his struggles.
He recognises the importance of It’s a Wonderful Life from a mental health perspective, telling UNILAD:
Like George, all our lives matter, and each of us has positively impacted the lives of others, something we sadly just can’t see or believe when we’re struggling.
It also reminds us that there are people out there who can and want to help. George has Clarence as his guardian angel, plus the kind people who group together to give him the money he needs.
Guardian angels can be found in family, friends and mental health professionals, we needn’t refuse help.
Although the film premiered in 1946 and initially wasn’t considered a Christmas film – director Frank Capra told The Wall Street Journal, ‘I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea’ – it has become a staple of Christmas television in the 72 years since.
Its emphasis on love, hope, and redemption, all the while focusing on the lead character’s struggle with mental health, makes it, in my opinion, the most culturally significant Christmas film. It’s A Wonderful Life doesn’t shy away from the truth that while Christmas is the most magical time of the year for some, for others it can be daunting, scary and miserable.
As a nod to this, Virgin Trains this year partnered with Rethink Mental Illness to paint the script of the film on train platforms across the country.
From London to Glasgow, quotes from It’s A Wonderful Life have been appearing on platforms in recognition of how difficult the festive period can be for some people, and to show how powerful simple acts of kindness can be.
Natasha Grice, Executive Director of People at Virgin Trains said:
It’s A Wonderful Life is a story of hope, redemption and kindness, which teaches us that having someone there for you when you need it the most is one of the greatest gifts you can receive.
Many of our people have been personally affected by the issues raised in this campaign or know someone who has been. This is why we wanted to get as many of our staff involved as possible, working to create a message of kindness that will touch as many of our customers as we can.
We want everyone to know there’s help out there, and that if you’re not affected by poor mental health, it’s really easy to help someone who is.
The text also incorporates website addresses, which will take people to advice, support, and information on how to cope with mental health issues, and how to intervene safeky when someone you know is struggling. So although the film is approaching three quarters of a century in age, its message is as relevant today as it has ever been.
Rethink Mental Illness has worked with Virgin Trains for two years, training staff in how to deal with mental health issues by encouraging them to talk openly about it, as well as teaching them to identify and support people – such as passengers – who might be struggling.
James Fletcher, Head of Corporate Partnerships at Rethink Mental Illness, told UNILAD about the charity’s partnership with Virgin, saying their mental health awareness and support training is just the beginning of their journey.
This new project is more awareness-focused, linking the film It’s A Wonderful Life and the story, which relates to one man who doesn’t realise how much other people appreciate what he brings to their lives and to encourage all of us, therefore, to take part in little acts of kindness, to reach out and help each other.
Particularly at Christmas, which can be of course, a very happy and fun time, but can be a tough time as well.
When asked why this film in particular was chosen for their campaign, James pointed to the overlap between the message of It’s A Wonderful Life and its relevance 70 years later to the charity’s work in mental health.
I think the thing about It’s A Wonderful Life is that it has that message of family support, it has this happy ending, but it also says ‘life isn’t easy and life can be tough along the way’.
We know as a mental health charity, and as more and more people are coming forward and discussing particular mental health problems they’ve experienced, that we need to do all we can to help people to feel confident to reach out for help when they need it, and to be able to feel they can also offer help to other people around them if they need it too.
Whether that is friends and family, like in the film It’s A Wonderful Life, or whether it’s the people you work with, or indeed people who you are travelling with, or who are around you every day as you’re commuting or travelling home for Christmas.
All too often, the true meaning of Christmas can be forgotten, instead replaced by presents and expensive gifts. And while, yes, I agree that there is something special about seeing your loved ones open a gift that you’ve put so much thought and effort into, it shouldn’t be our primary focus.
Instead, we should be doing everything in our power to look after ourselves and each other during the festive period.
UNILAD spoke to Steve Carr, a trained mental health coach and suicide survivor who, up until his recovery, ‘dreaded’ Christmas and all it entailed. Suffering from depression, anxiety, stress, and addiction, he said he would cry himself to sleep each year and would vow that his next Christmas would not be the same.
Christmas is a time of year we like to celebrate for many reasons, be it faith, giving and receiving presents, spending time with family, relaxing, over indulging.
All in all it’s a great time of year, unless you are spending it alone. For me it was a time of year I absolutely dreaded the thought of.
Like George, Steve had help – this time in the form of a GP. After becoming homeless, attempting suicide three times, and suffering from a nervous breakdown, Steve knew something had to change and admitted to his doctor that he couldn’t go on like this.
— Mindcanyon Mental Health And Mental Fitness. (@mindcanyonmh) November 29, 2018
Three years on he is in recovery. Not only that, but he has established his own non-profit organisation Mindcanyon, a mental health recovery and suicide prevention education specialist.
He has also walked from one end of the country to another and cycled all around the world, totalling more than 3,300 miles – all to raise awareness for mental health.
Steve explained he has ‘never felt better,’ stating:
It feels truly amazing to be able to help others, it’s like I’ve gained a new lease of life, found my passion and my purpose. The biggest reason I now do what I do is because I’ve lived it, and I believe nobody else should.
It’s A Wonderful Life is so important because it shows that every life matters, every person has value, and nothing should be taken for granted. It’s a Christmas film that isn’t about Christmas – it’s about life, love and family.
Anyone could be struggling, despite appearances to the contrary; just because a person seems happy, they could easily be hiding their inner turmoil. George was a family man who was adored by many, yet he couldn’t see beyond his struggles.
The film teaches us to be kind, to look out for others, and to talk openly to those who care about us. And if that isn’t the true message of Christmas, I don’t know what is.
Rethink Mental Illness offers support to those who are affected by mental illness and their families all year round. You can make a donation here.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123.
A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).