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Stigmatization of mental illness – The Dark Knight

Here’s a line from The Dark Knight script written by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer. To set the scene, good guy Harvey Dent has one of the Joker’s henchmen and is roughing him up. The Batman appears and suggests that he might like to act more responsibly (‘You’re the symbol of hope I could never be’ etc). During this exchange Batman reflects upon the mental health of the Joker’s man:

His name’s Shiff, Thomas. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic, a former patient at Arkham. The kind of man the joker attracts script page 82

This sort of casual unthinking prejudice and stigmatization I cannot let pass without comment. Someone who suffers from schizophrenia is a not simply a ‘schizophrenic’ but a person. Although many people suffering from schizophrenia, as well as other disorders of mental health, are vulnerable, it does not follow that they would be easily perverted in this way. You may think that I am being needlessly pedantic, but this has been an extremely popular film and this scene will influence many people’s perceptions of what it is to have a serious mental illness.

Stigma has been found to be highly prevalent among people with a serious mental health problem living in the community. Due to exchanges like the above both former psychiatric patients and members of the general population internalise negative cultural conceptions and attitudes about people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. This results in discrimination, leading to to people who have been labelled mentally ill being denied important life opportunities. For example, people with mental illness are frequently unable to obtain good jobs or find suitable housing because of the attitudes of key members of their community such as employers and landlords.

As a result, many psychiatric patients form a negative self-concept emerges from both their primary disorder and from the cumulative reaction of others. Social rejection is an ongoing and recursive experience in the community setting and a persistent form of social stress.

More reading:

How stigma interferes with mental health care Patrick Corrigan American Psychologist 2004

4th International stigma conference – 21 – 23 January 2009 IoP London –  looks interesting if you’ve got £260 to spare

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  1. I am one of those people who has suffered from the stigma of having a mental illness, and I have certainly suffered a great deal of discrimination. While it is against the law to discriminate on the grounds of sex, race, religion, or age, it seems that those with mental illness are fair game.

  2. Good post Frontier – couldn’t agree more.

    How is it that the media and entertainment industry judge it to be ok to refer to people with these sorts of problems in such an uneducated, simplistic and stigmatising way? It would never be tolerated with any other minority group.

    I once requested a disclosure under the freedom of info act from ofcom regarding the number of complaints about stigma against people with mental health problems (and how many were upheld). Can’t remember the exact stats but as you’ll guess, very very few complaints were taken seriously. Would be good to compare against complaints re racism or sexism…

  3. When I watched the film, that moment gave me pause, but I didn’t think anymore about it afterward. It embarrasses me to admit that I didn’t make the connection of how effectively messages like this are sent by movies, further stigmatizing people with mental illnesses.

    But for me it’s not simply the stigma that is perpetuated, but also the glorification of mental illnesses that creates problems, e.g. *A Beautiful Mind*, *Girl Interrupted*, *Fight Club*, *One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next* and a slew of other movies, that while perhaps drawing needed attention towards mental illness in general, makes it even more difficult for people to properly recognize and respect mental illnesses in people who are still trying to resolve within themselves whether or not they are ill as well as figure out how to go forward with it all. When people around a person refuse to acknowledge even the possibility of mental illness simply because you’re not bathed in lethargy, writhing on the floor, freaking out and screaming, talking to hallucinations, catatonic, etc., it hurts the person just as much and can completely reverse any progress that might have been made.

  4. Very good post FP. That sort of stuff makes me cross. Even if not conciously, people are likely to assume mentally ill=dangerous, when as you say, popular films etc carry on with their ill informed foolishness.

  5. I fully support stigma campaigns, currently being on long-term incapacity benefit for mental ilness, but I think much of the criticism of The Dark Knight is unfounded. Arkham is , in the Batman universe, a hospital for the “criminally insane” and of course anyone working for the Joker is unlikely to be taking necessary antipsychotics! I think the line in the film is actually “in and out of arkham” too – and pejoratively characterising an *untreated* person with schizoprhrenia with a long tradition of actual violence as “the kind of mind the Joker attracts” is not a slur on paranoid schizophrenics per se. Now of course most people watching the film might not be alert to such subtleties, but the line “in and out of Arkham” was surely added for a reason. If the lines had just been a variation of “he’s a paranoid schizophrenic, the kind of mind the Joker attracts” then I’d agree with the original post. And of course even Doctors and nurses refer (although they shouldn’t) to “schizophrenics” – making it acceptable that the non-medical Batman would use the term talking to the non-medical Harvey Dent, especially when there’s a great deal of urgency to what he’s saying! I’m reminded of the Transphobia chracterisation of Silence of the Lambs – yes, many viewers and readers might just interpret Buffallo Bill as “trannie, so REALLY crazy” but the book at least stresses that Buffallo Bill is *not* a genuine transsexual and that most transpeople are non-violent.

    There might have been references to the Joker being schizophrenic in comics elsewhere, but they usually work along Hannibal Lecter lines – i.e. this guy is so scary, unique etc that the doctors dont’ know what to call him and have exhausted most of the labels.