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Psychiatrists Call Out DC on Depictions of Mentally Ill
By Vaneta Rogers, Newsarama
28 October 2011

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.

"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.


"DC is not alone in using depictions that don't serve the mentally ill well," Bender told Newsarama. "But what we're finding is that, when they portray a character as being violent, and as being psychopathic, and the depiction uses language that refers to that person as mentally ill, there tends to be this link that's reinforced, this idea that those with mental illness are violent. Or that mental illness is causing this violent behavior, or this abhorrent thinking. And that's not the case."

Kambam said the problem is that the terms being used by comic creators to describe their villains — like "psychotic" and "schizophrenic" — are actual medical terms in the real world. ""You're trying to explain a character's villainy or extreme violence by using a real-life illness, that people in the real world have, that are very common. That's when it's harmful to people in real life," Kambam said.

The psychiatrists repeated several time that they don't want the beloved villains in comics to be changed, and they are fine with depictions that show bizarre behavior. But they want the references to mental illnesses to be handled more responsibly.

"I for one grew up reading these characters and read about Arkham, and these characters are very dear to my heart," Pozios said. "But the language needs updated, and things like 'lunatic' just don't belong. Or 'psychos,' as it was thrown around for Batman: The Dark Knight.'"

Bender pointed out that when the Joker is doing something morally reprehensible, he's often referred to by Batman or other characters as being "psychotic."

"The bizarre behavior, in and of itself, does not mean somebody is psychotic or suffers from a psychotic illness such as schizophrenia," Bender said. "The Joker may be psychopathic in the ways he's being depicted. That's one of the distinctions we're trying to point out."

How Stereotypes Hurt

Kambam said he and his colleagues have seen first-hand how some of the language and some of the depictions in media may be potentially harmful to patients and perpetuate stereotypes that aren't true.

He used the example of an adolescent patient he saw this summer who had a psychotic disorder, probably schizophrenia. When he told the patient, one of the responses was, "Am I going to be a serial killer? Am I going to kill people when I grow up?"

"I was just shocked by that," Kambam said. "I said, where did you get that idea? We were talking about it, and a lot of this is from media portrayals.

"It has a lot of impact. People don't want to get treatment, they don't want to admit they have these symptoms, they hide, they don't tell anyone, and they suffer in isolation," he said. "And it translates to discrimination on a broader level."
Pozios terms like lunatic or insane or crazy lead to discrimination. "People with schizophrenia face tremendous discrimination, in the workplace, or people not wanting to live near them, and people not wanting to socialize with them," he said. "So this kind of language leads to very real discrimination."

Kambam said it's irresponsible to depict illness in a way that is negative when it's possible to be more accurate within the story. "If you're using a real-life illness and you're applying it to something inaccurate that is very scary or negative or villainous, that's going to translate to discrimination on a real-world person," he said.

Positive vs. Negative

"Beyond the terms, the depictions are not positive depictions," Pozios said. "So when you throw around terms like schizophrenia or bi-polar, the problem is that those are often portrayed as negative."

But the psychiatrists pointed toward a recent high-profile superhero called Starman as an example of how the illness known as schizophrenia was able to be shown in a more positive and even accurate light.

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."


Pozios also pointed toward a recent controversy where female fans didn't like the way Catwoman and Starfire portrayed stereotypically as sex symbols in recent comics. He said the argument against female stereotypes isn't any different from the points that he and the other psychiatrists are trying to make.

"While many attribute personal significance to the depictions of female characters, many erroneously think of those with mental illness as 'not us' and do not attribute that same personal significance," Pozios said. "This marginalization of those with mental illness is, indeed, a fallacy because mental disorders affect people of all backgrounds and cut across sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and gender. In fact, the CDC released a report in September stating that 50 percent of Americans will struggle with a mental disorder at some point in their lives.

"Right now is the right time to start talking about this," Pozios said. "Publishers can easily update their language in a way that's not derogatory, and they can encourage portrayals that aren't harmful.

"They can do this while still telling compelling and innovative stories with modern sensibilities, referring to DC's own stated goals," he said. "Why wouldn't you do that? It seems to me that it's a win-win situation."
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