Mental health is a big topic these days. It is all over the media. In the news headline you have people in America going on killing sprees with the NRA pointing the finger not at the easy access to guns, but at mental health facilities. Then on the sport pages we had Luis Suarez seeking treatment for his compulsion to bite people. Finally, in the showbiz section we have trailers for movies like Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad making entertainment about people who struggle with mental illness. This all leads to a very confused picture about what mental illness actually is and how society treats people with certain issues.
The Batman stories are drenched in themes surrounding mental illness. I do love these movies and really hope the new ones match up to the previous trilogies but you can’t hide from the way in which mental illness is used as a handy excuse to create loads of enemies for Batman to take on.
Gotham City is flooded with people who have escaped from Arkham Asylum. In Batman Begins a hallucinogenic toxin created by the Psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Crane (Scarecrow) is released as a gas throughout the city causing many people to lose their mind creating chaos and excuses for Batman to look cool.
There are other obvious references to mental health issues with the most prominent being the Joker, a character who ‘just wants to watch the world burn’ for no reason. No real motive is explained. He is just having a laugh at Batman and Gotham’s expense.
This may be fun to watch for a few hours and most people will leave the cinema feeling entertained and get on with their lives. However, many will now associate a mentally ill person with the image of the Joker, portrayed by Heath Ledger and now Jared Leto. This character has been re-launched throughout the decades with each reincarnation becoming darker and darker. Heath Ledger went so far with the character that it surely played a part in the issues he was going through towards the end of his life. The current images of the latest Joker are designed to shock the audience and play massively on the aspect of his character that he has a combination of every mental illness known to man.
Having some experience of working within the mental health system I can tell you that mental health care homes are a very different place from those depicted in the movies. Mental illness can strike anyone at any time. Psychiatric wards are not full of criminals, they are full of ordinary people who have been overwhelmed by extraordinary circumstances. Not the deranged psychopaths that DC Comics would have you believe.
Another issue is that mental health disorders are all put under a massive umbrella where one person with anger issues and hallucinations is treated in the same ward as a catatonic who is struggling with depression. The more I spoke to people within the mental health system the more I found out how very little we knew about the conditions we were treating. And the more I started to think these issues were environmental rather than physiological. Sure, we have textbooks and studies on hundreds of categorised illnesses but it causes workers within the industry to assume they know all the reasons why the individual in front of them is behaving the way they are. It’s very dangerous to assume you know the individual because you read about something similar in a book.
When a person disclosed to me their deepest anxieties and secrets to me I always felt guilty. They shouldn’t be telling me this. There is no training course in the world that can give you answers to some of the problems that were raised in these interviews. If someone is telling you about something that has been eating them up for years you better have amazing advice to give back to them… otherwise don’t dig.
What can you say to someone who has lost his job and can’t pick himself up to rebuild his career again? What can you tell someone who has had a drink too many far too many times and now just doesn’t feel they can stop? These problems were just the tip of the iceberg I heard about during my experience. I’m sure characters like the Joker are based on some real life perceptions of mental health but the majority of patients I tried to help were heavily damaged by life circumstances. The patients who made the best recovery were those who decided to process their feelings themselves. Those people who held onto that spark of hope. Those people who got up by themselves. Yes the drugs do work. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, but what works more is that inner resolve to keep going, to help yourself and to stand up knowing that life may knock you down again.
Perhaps in the next batman movie Bruce Wayne should talk to Alfred about how his parents death affected him and how he can use that to talk to other people with similar issues. With all his money he could then open up a drug free therapy clinic for people to share their grief and leave the crime fighting to Commissioner Gordon.