Psychiatrists Call Out DC on Depictions of Mentally Ill

Psychiatrists Call Out DC

As the comic book industry is struggling to remake itself right now, the changes publishers have made are often focused on diversity.

Just last month, Marvel added a new Hispanic Spider-Man. When DC Comics relaunched its comics' universe in September, it was done with an eye on racial diversity. And in just the last few weeks, fans have quite vehemently demanded less sexualization of female characters in comics.

But another group of avid comic fans are hoping the new sensitivity toward diversity will also change the way comics treat another minority group:

The mentally ill.

"We see this as a great opportunity," said Praveen Kambam, a forensic psychiatrist who's helping to lead the charge. "While they modernize other areas of their comics, they also could modernize their mental health depictions."

It's a challenge that's gotten mainstream attention. Last month, Kambam joined with fellow psychiatrists H. Eric Bender and Vasilis Pozios to get their op-ed published in The New York Times.

The Times piece called for DC Comics to change its depiction of the mentally ill, now that the publisher revamps its comic characters as part of the "New 52" initiative.

What Sparked the Controversy

The three forensic psychiatrists, who co-founded the consulting group "Broadcast Thought," are also comic book readers. And they've often been appalled by the depiction of the mentally ill in comics. But it was one recent solicitation that got the ball rolling.

"This is something that I've had my eye on, as I went through medical school and went through psychiatry residency, and then forensic psychiatry fellowship," Pozios said. "I've paid more careful attention to these depictions of mental illness in comic books.

A Surreal BATMAN & ROBIN Experiment
A Surreal BATMAN & ROBIN Experiment
Batman and Robin #26

"And I have to say that, as someone who regularly reads Newsarama, I pay attention to the solicitations when they're posted," he said. "And when the solicitation came out for Batman and Robin #26, I have to say that was a shock to me, when I saw the language that was used. I thought to myself, "I can't believe they're actually using this sort of language. They're actually using the word 'lunatic' in the solicitation!'"

The solicitation said, "Someone freed the lunatics, and unless they can be stopped, they'll turn Paris into a surreal Hell on Earth!"

"I thought about writing something about it back then," Pozios said. "And I started talking to the guys about it. But when DC announced the relaunch, we all thought it would be a great opportunity for DC to seize the moment and update some of the language and the depictions.

But so far, Pozios said, mental disorders seem to be depicted in a similar manner after the relaunch as there were before September. "It's too early to tell if there will be any substantive changes, but we remain optimistic that DC Comics will capitalize on the success of The New 52 and seize the opportunity to modernize depictions of mental health issues in future DC Comics issues," he said.

Language and Misdiagnosis

DC has long relied on mental problems to explain their most popular villains. In particular, the Batman rogues like Joker, Harley Quinn and other "criminally insane" villains who reside in Gotham City's forensic psychiatric hospital, Arkham Asylum.

Justice Society

of America #2

"Starman is a great example; we like that depiction," Pozios said. "We think [writer] Geoff Johns, [who portrayed the character's mental illness,] did a fantastic job with that storyline."

Pozios said the hero was shown getting treatment at a mental facility for his schizophrenia, but he was also shown functioning as a positive member of society.

"This person was not a villain and he had schizophrenia, just like it would happen in the real world," Pozios said. "People that commit crimes may have schizophrenia, but people who don't commit crimes may have schizophrenia. And it was just one part of that character's life. It wasn't defining that person.

Pozios pointed out that if a character in a comic book had cancer, it wouldn't automatically follow that it was something negative that defined everything about the person. "You wouldn't ever refer to a person as, 'that's walking breast cancer right there.' You'd say, 'that's such-and-such person, and he has breast cancer.'

"The way it's depicted so often with villains is that the guy is bad because of his mental illness. That mental illness completely defines him," he said. "And that's just not how it is in real life."

Timing is Everything

Kambam said some people will say, "Oh this is just fiction," but he pointed out that stereotypes form in very subtle ways, and when there is no accurate and non-discriminating counter-image, the stereotypes get perpetuated.

"Inaccurate portrayals perpetuate additional inaccurate portrayals, and soon audiences do not recognize which aspects are real," Pozios said. "For example, when audiences read Superman, they intuitively know a man cannot fly. However, audiences do not always have the same intuition and points of reference when it comes to depictions of mental health issues."

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