There is a lot we can learn from the heroes and villains of DC. Here are two important things they teach us about mental illness.
DC Comics has thrilled fans in recent years with a plethora of films featuring their favourite superheroes, including 2017’s Justice League. The heroes are often seen as being infallible, and their villains beyond reform.
Sometimes, both heroes and villains experience a specific type of health problem that serves as an equaliser. For the villains, it removes their inhibitions, allowing them to act without remorse. It does something similar to the heroes, causing them to behave in unexpected ways while limiting their ability to perform public services as the saviours of mankind. What is that great equaliser? Mental illness.
This article will examine the depictions of mental illness in four of DC’s favorite characters: The Joker, Harley Quinn, Superman, and Supergirl.
Exposure to these portrayals affects you – yes, you – in fundamental ways. How do you view those who are diagnosed with mental illness? How do you view yourself?
1. Welcome to Arkham
DC Comic’s portrayals of the mentally ill within Arkham Asylum may have far reaching effects on readers and viewers. How?
Perhaps Arkham’s most well known and infamous patient is the Joker, an arch nemesis of Batman.
The Joker’s origin story typically revolves around the loss of his wife and unborn child, and a disfiguring dip in a chemical vat.
Though never assigned a specific diagnosis, he shows signs of psychopathy – a brain abnormality that results in a lack of empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of others. Those with this disorder have been described as “impulsive, self-centred, pleasure seeking people who seemed to be completely lacking in certain primary emotions, such as anxiety, shame, and guilt”.
A similar disorder is called antisocial personality disorder. According to the Diagnostic Statistic Manual (DSM), it is marked by failure to conform to laws, aggressiveness, and reckless disregard for the safety of others – which brings us to our second example.
The Joker has ties to Harleen Frances Quinzel, PhD, his psychologist at Arkham Asylum. During her sessions with the Joker, she falls for him – quite madly, pardon the pun. She helps him escape the asylum, becomes his sidekick, and exhibits other strange behaviors.
The Joker repeatedly shows little concern for Harley – i.e., shoving her off a building, verbally deriding her, etc.
In the trailer for the 2016 film Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn is introduced among “the most dangerous people on the planet” with the simple words: “She’s just crazy.”
Harley herself continues, “What was that? I should kill everyone and escape? Sorry… it’s the voices. I’m kidding! That’s not what they really said.”
Harley’s hearing voices seems to be an allusion to schizophrenia, or a related illness involving psychosis – a disconnect with reality that often involves hallucinations or delusions. Her falling in love with a patient could be termed Florence Nightingale Syndrome. In the cases of both the Joker and Harley Quinn, insanity, violence and unpredictability are central to their personalities.
The final piece of this twisted puzzle lies with Arkham Asylum itself. The Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane first entered the DC universe in 1974. It is often depicted as a foreboding, castle-like edifice.
One backstory describes the building’s architect becoming mentally unwell and murdering his employees, thereafter being treated at the asylum he himself built.
In another, the heir to the Arkham estate kills his mother, represses the memory, and allows everyone to believe she committed suicide. Later, he founds the psychiatric hospital in hopes that other families would not suffer as his had – but not before his wife and daughter are killed by one of his patients.
Needless to say, this is pretty dark stuff. How do you feel after reading about it? A bit unsettled? Now, imagine you’ve just learned that a friend or family member has received a diagnosis of, say, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or the like. How do you feel about him or her? Be honest – are the faces of Harley or the Joker crowding into your estimation of this person?
Now, imagine that you’ve just watched The Dark Knight or Suicide Squad, knowing that you yourself carry the label of a diagnosis of mental illness. How do you feel about yourself? Do you compare yourself to these characters who are labeled “insane,” or do you feel that others do so?
Stay with me now, because it’s not all gloom and doom – Superman is here to save the day.
2. Watch Out for the Kryptonite
True green kryptonite cripples Superman and makes him physically ill, but other types result in a wide range of side effects.
For example, in the 1983 film Superman III, a dose of synthetic kryptonite laced with tar causes peculiar behaviour in the Man of Steel. When he hears of a disaster in Smallville, he’s more interested in his present company, Lana Lang. In a moment of clarity, Superman realises something is not quite right.
Later, he performs acts that are acutely out of character – he desecrates a European monument, interferes with the lighting of the Olympic flame, and refuses to rescue a woman perched on the top of the Statue of Liberty. At her request, he disables a tanker, causing an environmentally dangerous oil spill, before taking advantage of her.
Then, depression and despondency set in. Superman is seen at a bar, where he appears to have imbibed enough to become intoxicated despite his Kryptonian metabolism. He wantonly destroys the bar owner’s property, and makes himself – his image in a mirror – the target of his own laser vision. A lady outside proclaims, “He’s crazy, that’s what it is,” and a man can be heard saying, “Superman’s broken.”
When Lana’s son, Ricky, catches sight of the dejected Superman, he won’t accept his mother’s opinion that Superman has changed. He says, “Maybe he’s just sick. Superman, please get better! Superman, you’re just in a slump. You’ll be great again. You can do it, Superman.”
Superman then flies to a salvage yard, where he screams. A worker calls out, “He’s gone nuts!”
Superman then splits into two persons, his caped self and alter ego Clark Kent – perhaps he is experiencing a hallucination. He battles himself, with Kent representing Superman’s traditional values. Just as Kent attains the upper hand, Superman disappears, leaving Kent shaken but recovering.
Superman’s cousin, Supergirl, has a similar experience in the 2015 television series.
In Season 1, Episode 16, Falling, she is exposed to synthetic red kryptonite. Soon, she is smarting off to her superiors – her friends – at the DEO, letting criminals escape, and damaging government property.
She also becomes very self-assured and irritable. She goes to work dressed much more provocatively than is her norm, gets her rival Siobhan fired, comes on to Jimmy Olsen, and throws Cat Grant off a building. She also gets inebriated in a bar and destroys things by flicking peanuts across the room, as her cousin had done before her.
Cat says in a news release that Supergirl is “unstable,” and love interest Jimmy Olsen recognises, “Something’s wrong with Kara.”
Supergirl, however, couldn’t face her situation on her own. She couldn’t just keep a stiff upper lip, man up, and muddle through. She needed help. Cat says to Supergirl, “I fear you are having some sort of a mental breakdown. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us.” Her sister Alex tries to help her understand that “This isn’t you,” that the red kryptonite exposure had altered her brain.
Even though Kara speaks harshly to her, saying things she certainly would not otherwise, Alex remains calm and kind, telling Kara she is proud of her. When Kara resists treatment, she has to be restrained by the DEO, and it takes a dose of the antidote to pull her out of her synthetic-K induced episode.
Supergirl awakens in the infirmary of the DEO, crying as she realises what has happened. She describes the experience in this way: “It was so bad… it was so horrible. Every bad thought I’d ever had just came to the surface, and I couldn’t stop it.”
Her recovery was not over, however. It would take a long time to pick up the pieces, especially of her bruised relationship with Jimmy.
Fortunately, Supergirl enjoys a reliable support system. Alex assures her, “You are my sister. I love you, no matter what happens.” When Supergirl expresses her grief to Cat Grant, confiding, “I know what happened wasn’t exactly my fault. My brain was altered,” even Cat offers words of comfort and encouragement.
Much can be learned from this depiction. Those experiencing symptoms of mental illness need support, not condemnation. Ricky, Alex, and Cat are favourable examples of this. They weren’t afraid of their friends, but extended a compassionate hand. “It happens to the best of us,” Cat said. Kara especially needed aid in seeing the issue at hand and seeking help.
The point is, both Superman and Supergirl eventually recognised there was a problem, took appropriate steps to correct it, and in time returned to a normal way of life.
Clark’s battle with himself illustrates the struggle with negative emotions that some individuals encounter every day. For Supergirl, recovery realistically involved a form of medicine and a brief hospital stay.
The Kryptonians’ encounters with uncommon kryptonite represent an empathetic and more realistic view of mental illness. It’s something that can happen to the best of us. It is also something that can be overcome, and sufferers can, in time and with proper treatment, live fulfilling lives. A brush with mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t still be a hero.
Does This Really Affect Me?
Once, I had a conversation with an acquaintance in which described an act of road rage she had recently observed. She concluded her story by saying, “Maybe he was bipolar. You can’t trust those people, you know. They could do anything.”
It is little wonder that many people have come to such a conclusion – that those afflicted with mental illness are dangerous and could “snap” at any moment. The examples given above of the Joker and Harley Quinn lend themselves to such a belief, but they are not the only ones.
Throughout its history, Hollywood has revelled in frightening tales of the insane committing horrendous acts of violence. The use of outdated terms such as “lunatic,” “crazy,” “psycho,” and “asylum” serve only to label and distance people who are, in fact, still normal people.
Hollywood, obviously, does not offer an accurate depiction, or at least not a balanced one. Yes, there have been serial killers and other criminals who were later diagnosed with various mental illnesses, such as psychopathy. This, though, represents a small portion of those who live with mental illness.
Did you know? One in four people worldwide will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. So, look around you – how many of your friends and family struggle with depression, mood disorders, eating disorders, or the like? What about you?
For this reason, most mental health professionals have adopted a “patient-centred” or “person first” approach – for example, referring to “a person with schizophrenia” rather than “a schizophrenic.”
Such concern is not uncommon. According to the American Journal of Public Health, 61 percent of survey respondents “agreed that people with schizophrenia were ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ likely to do something violent to others.” This belief is in direct opposition to the fact that 90 percent of psychiatric patients have no history of violence.
What, then, can be done to combat such irrational fears? Educate yourself. Learn about the mental disorders experienced by those you care about. When you understand what they have been through and what you can expect, fears may be replaced by patience and empathy.
Sure, “crazy” people can make for interesting fictional stories. But do yourself a favour and get the real scoop on mental illness as well. Doing so will prevent you from acting on media driven prejudices and preconceived notions.
And if you yourself deal with mental illness on a daily basis, remember that you are not alone – with the guidance of your healthcare professional, you, too, can learn to cope. You can be your own Superman.