Detective Comics #1 The JokerI came across this thought-provoking op ed piece from the New York Times website entitled Putting the Caped Crusader on the Couch, written by three psychiatrists who are urging DC to reexamine their use of mental disorders, specifically in regard to some of its highest profile villains.  The writers, H. Eric Bender, Praveen R. Kambam and Vasilis K. Pozios,  point out just how casually the issue of mental health and disorder is thrown about in comics and also point out that this type of depiction actually affects people in the real world who suffer from mental disorders and may not seek treatment because of such images.  This stigma also has a strong sway over the general public’s perception of mental illness and those suffering from it.

I’d like to share one especially enlightening passage:

“Comic books have long relied on mental disorders to drive their most memorable villains. Consider the Batman line, in which the Joker, Harley Quinn and other “criminally insane” rogues are residents of Gotham City’s forensic psychiatric hospital, Arkham Asylum.

Introduced in 1974, Arkham grossly confuses the concepts of psychiatric hospital and prison. Patients are called “inmates,” decked out in shackles and orange jumpsuits, while a mental health professional doubles as the “warden.” Even the antiquated word “asylum” implies that the patients are locked away with no treatment and little hope of rejoining society.

Contrast that with real-world forensic psychiatric hospitals, where patients are typically incompetent to stand trial or judged not guilty by reason of insanity. These individuals are not inmates, since they have not been convicted of crimes and are not incarcerated.”

Suicide Squad #1 Harley QuinnI’d never really thought about it, but Arkham, while an exciting locale in an imaginary world, does contrast sharply from a real mental hospital.  Such a place would never be allowed to exist in the real world!  Can you imagine the number laws and regulations that place must violate, when it comes to the care of people with mental disorders?

Further more, I now realize that there is no way in the world, that someone that is classified as mentally ill, like Harley Quinn, would be taken by the government, physically and psychologically tortured and exploited as a government assassin the way she was in the first two issues of ‘Suicide Squad!’

Another portion of the article points out that in many cases, writers actually use inaccurate terminology:

“Two-Face’s central quality, a split personality, isn’t characteristic of schizophrenia. Similarly, the Joker is often called “psychotic,” despite a lack of hallucinations or other symptoms of a psychotic disorder.”

Writers spend so much time fact-checking and researching various subjects to tell their stories.  Think about how much science is spouted in ‘Swamp Thing’ and ‘Static Shock.’  Yet, with as much mental illness that is employed in the Bat Universe, no one has bothered to look up the proper terminology before now?  That’s mind-boggling!

But that isn’t the worst case, when it comes to language:

“Or consider the promotional material for a recent Batman comic featuring “Le Jardin Noir,” France’s own Arkham, which reads, “Someone has freed the lunatics, and unless they can be stopped, they’ll turn Paris into a surreal Hell on Earth!” If “lunatics” were replaced with an epithet for another minority group, would we consider it acceptable?”

Lunatics?!  That is simply appalling, now that I think about it!  That’s the problem, right there.  Previously, I hadn’t thought about it.  We’re just so acclimated to Arkham Asylum and all its colorful “inmates,” that it’s all just become an institution in all our minds.  We simply understand that The Joker is bats*** crazy and that it’s acceptable to think of and refer to him as such.  I’d never for one second considered how someone who actually suffers from a mental disorder must feel by such depictions.  Terms like “lunatic,” “crazy,” “psycho”… we throw them around so casually when discussing super villains, but would never refer to someone with dementia or bipolar disorder that way.  My grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia!  I’d flip out of anyone called her a “lunatic!”

Two-Face Harvey DentThe piece fairly points out that comics are certainly not the only perpetrators of this type of thinking, of course.  We see it in movies, TV shows and books.  Fittingly, it’s October and just think about how many movies we watch at this time of year, showcasing “psycho killers!”

The worst part, of course, is the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes that color the way we view those with disorders:

“The 2006 National Stigma Study-Replication found that 60 percent of people believed a person with schizophrenia, as described in a vignette, would be likely to be violent toward others — despite the fact that, according to the Surgeon General’s office, “There is very little risk of violence or harm to a stranger from casual contact with an individual who has a mental disorder.” Such stereotypes can in turn lead to discrimination and cause those with mental disorders to avoid treatment for fear of being labeled “lunatics.”

Think about how you’d feel if all African Americans were portrayed as violent serial killers.  No one would stand for it!  We certainly have super villains of color, but we also have more heroes of color to balance them out.  But how many positive portrayals of people with mental disorders are there?  There are certainly some, but I’m curious as to what the exact ratio is.  The article mentions Starman from the Justice Society and Legion of Super Heroes, who suffers from schizophrenia.  He’s the most acute case of a super hero suffering from a mental disorder.  In other cases, like The Hulk, it’s more metaphorical.

Sadly, we’re in an age where, when it comes to comics, people of color and women are still struggling to receive fair and accurate portrayals.  These are groups that, in the United States, won their equal rights decades ago.  We’re just starting to see positive portrayals of Gay/Lesbian/Transgender people and non-Christians.  It looks as if those with mental illness are the last group that haven’t been portrayed with equal positive characters to counter the negative ones.

I’m glad I read this article.  I felt a light bulb turn on in my head.  These characters are so iconic and engrained in our minds, I had never considered the greater impact of what they represent.  There is still so much stigma and misunderstanding out there when it comes to mental illness and disorders.  The simple fact that the Batman creators use the wrong terms when describing their characters disorders is a big problem that could be corrected with a quick Wikipedia search.  I’m not saying they need to suddenly crank out heroes that suffer from a gauntlet of mental illnesses, but they should at least accurately portray the characters they already have.  And certain vocabulary, like “crazy” and “lunatics” need to be used with more consideration.  This article was so thought-provoking, I simply had to share it and my reaction to it and I hope you have a similar reaction.