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Superpowers, mental health, and the problems of representation

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Apr 9, 2018, 12:30 PM EDT

Superpowers can be hazardous for a person's mental health. Comics and their related media are filled with examples of people who suffer from mental health problems to varying degrees. This is a problem across all forms of sci-fi, from Firefly's River Tam to how malfunctioning machines such as the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey rebel against their masters in a stereotypically psychotic fashion.

But now that superhero comic books, TV shows, and movies are a mainstream medium, shouldn't they at least try to show mental illness in a more positive light? While there have been several steps in the right direction in terms of representation, there is still a tendency to fall back on tired clichés.

Despite the fact that there are a number of superheroes with mental health problems, the main way mental health is often portrayed is through the medium of the "Villain of the Week." From Smallville to The Flash and beyond, many shows pit our heroes against several minor bad guys on a week-by-week basis in order to prepare them for their inevitable confrontation with the series' Big Bad. By and large, these villains are rejects from society; sad, broken, lonely individuals who are suddenly handed amazing abilities and become weapons of mass destruction. Compared to the protagonist, they are frequently less good-looking, less financially stable, less socially integrated. They often reveal obsessive traits and become violently enraged at the slightest provocation. This raises a problem if the portrayal of villains becomes confused with the portrayal of people with mental health problems.

Dr. Joel Sheridan, a UK-based clinical psychologist, raises the point that negative portrayals of people with mental health difficulties in the mass media can be harmful in increasing stigma.

"Sadly, we often see depictions in the media of those with mental health problems as somehow lacking, characters without work, family, friends, money and homes," Sheridan told SYFY WIRE. "Such negative portrayals are damaging in that they can lead people to hold misinformed views of mental health problems. This may lead people to shy away from befriending those who they may regard as somehow different to them.

"One theory that is pertinent here is Allport's Intergroup Theory," Sheridan continues. "This theory suggests that interpersonal connection is the best way to diminish prejudice between group members. Sadly, the way that the media portrays people with mental illness often reinforces negative stereotypes and in doing so may well diminish social contact between people with and without mental health problems. As well as fueling prejudice, decreased social contact could also negatively impact on mental health, as we know that factors such as social isolation and social withdrawal can worsen mental health difficulties (e.g. depression)."

This is troubling but often seems to be the case.

Legion Season 2 Premiere, Dan Stevens

Take for instance the characters of Watchmen's Rorschach, the Incredible Hulk, and David "Legion" Haller. Instead of being treated with compassion, these victims of trauma are often pushed away and socially excluded. Within such an environment their mental health problems unsurprisingly become worse and worse.

Rorschach is dismissed as paranoid and crazy by his fellow costumed adventurers, leading him to spiral downward until he believes violent murder to be the only viable option in his war on crime. The Hulk is ostracized for being a monster and becomes even more dangerous the more isolated he gets. And David, despite being the main character on Legion, a show that has received praise for how it handles mental health, is isolated by the nature of his powers and his schizophrenia. Nobody knows how to approach him, so they treat him as a problem or a tool rather than a person. This makes him a prime target for the Shadow King.

Even though there are a number of problems with how mental health is treated by the superhero genre, many believe that things can improve, providing creators take responsibility for how they portray such issues in their work.

"There is potential for real and lasting change." Dr. Sheridan claims. "Authors and directors must consider the role they play in shifting negative attitudes for the better."

The organization Time to Change has done some wonderful work in decreasing stigma and increasing mental health awareness. Mental health problems are very common and affect millions of people across society. Indeed, one in four people suffer from mental health problems each year in the UK. So the message that the media should be conveying is that mental health is less about "us and them" and more about "all of us."

There are signs that even the Superhero genre may be shifting, albeit slowly, in its depiction of people with emotional difficulties. Marvel's Jessica Jones is a good example of this. The basic premise is that Jessica, following a tragic end to a superhero career, tries to build a life in New York. The post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she's suffering from is well portrayed, and there's also a hopeful message here. By taking on a case that makes her confront her past (in itself a kind of "exposure treatment"), she experiences an improvement in PTSD symptoms and is able to start "reclaiming her life" (a key element in certain types of psychological treatment for PTSD). And while her interpersonal difficulties don't always make her entirely likable, she is portrayed as basically a decent person trying to do good things under difficult circumstances.

Jessica Jones, subway

Credit: Netflix

This stands in contrast to other superheroes such as Batman, whose trauma completely defines him, or Legion, whose mental illness is used as a substitute for character development.

Another thing Jessica Jones gets right is avoiding tying Jessica's mental state to her powers. She is super-strong, with reflexes on par with Captain America, but this is in no way a metaphor for her PTSD. Contrast this with Legion or countless other TV shows and comics that treat superpowers as larger-than-life manifestations of personality quirks or neuroses. In short, she is allowed to be more than her condition.

Unfortunately, as negative stereotypes are still so dominant in the superhero genre, there is still a long way to go.