People Are Finally Talking About Mental Health
Mental health is a big topic these days. It is all over the media. In the news headlines you hear about 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 v Superman creating entertainment about people who struggle with mental illness. This all leads to a very confused picture of what mental illness actually is and how society treats people with certain issues.
Coming soon from the DC franchise is their latest movie called Suicide Squad, which surely has to be one of the most insensitive movie titles ever. If you made a movie about Steven Gerrard and called it ‘The Slip,’ that wouldn’t even come close to how near to the nerve of some vulnerable people the title of Suicide Squad is.
Batman and His Enemies
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 minds, creating chaos and excuses for Batman to look cool.
The most obvious reference to mental health issues can be seen in 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 at 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 fact that he has a combination of every mental illness known to man.
I can just hear the people out there who have anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression squirming at the prospect of more fuel being added to the mental health stigma fire.
Having some experience 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 know about the conditions we were treating. And the more I started to think about it, I realized these issues were environmental rather than physiological. Sure, we have textbooks and studies on hundreds of categorized 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 discloses their deepest anxieties and secrets to me, I always feel 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 are just the tip of the iceberg I discovered 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.
Thomas Szasz (1920-2012)
Thomas Szasz was a man who had so many issues with the Western mental health system that he trained as a psychiatrist himself to highlight flaws in the system from the inside out. He even has a character, Victor Zsaz, named after him in the Batman Comics.
He was such a skeptic that he doubted the existence of classifiable mental illness, calling them judgements of disdain and questioning the psychiatrists' authority to detain people against their will. While a thesis into the works of Thomas Szasz is something that is not going to happen here, he did give the whole mental health system a reality check.
We should be humbled by how much we don’t know about these conditions, we should stop stigmatizing people with mental health issues through the media, we should create an environment where people feel free to talk more about their problems instead of less, and we should also not be afraid to say ‘I’m not sure how to help you’ but I'll stick around until you feel better, but please try and feel better.’
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.
Much like Ben Affleck is now Batman instead of Christian Bale, the whole mental health system needs to be constantly relaunching itself, questioning its methods and never be afraid to admit it does not have all the answers.
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