Rosilyne Bean writes for Bleeding Cool from New York Comic Con,
Today at NYCC panelists discussed the current nature of representation for people with mental health issues in the media. This discussion took place at the “Crazy” Talk: Mental Health, Pop Culture, and Empowerment panel, with a room packed with engaged attendees. The host of the panel was attorney Jeff Trexler (The Beat, The Comics Journal). He was joined by Broadcast Thought co-founder and psychiatrist Praveen Kambam, M.D., journalist Valerie Complex of Black Girl Nerds, adolescent and child psychiatrist Jennifer Yen, M.D., resident doctor Christy Duan, M.D., and forensic psychiatrist co-founder of Broadcast Thought Vasilis K. Pozios, M.D.
During the discussion panelists argued that people who suffer from mental illness are one of the most underrepresented groups in media at this time. Dr. Pozios stresses that the issue isn’t a quantity problem, it’s a quality problem. “Not all representation is good representation,” he says, pointing to the fact that the majority of characters in comics and media who have mental health issues are villains.
The news media in particular jumps to mental illness as an explanation whenever there is an event involving violence, whether or not it had anything to do with what happened. Dr. Kambam sympathizes with this conclusion saying, “It’s understandable that people want to know why, because it’s scarier when we don’t know. It gives us a sense of control and safety to have a reason.” Media focuses on violence as a response to mental illness, when in reality they are more likely to withdraw or self harm. The panelists stress that it is important to see accurate representations of mental illness in media and print, especially for young adults.
The continued portrayal of mental illness as something violent or scary has created a stigma surrounding the subject. Dr. Kambam related an instance where he had an adolescent female patient who was showing signs of schizophrenia stop attending her appointments because she was afraid she would turn into a monster.
Writer Complex also emphasizes how damaging it is for media to romanticize mental illnesses, like we see with shows such as The Big Bang Theory or The Good Doctor and their autistic savants. She warns that these shows don’t represent the authentic experience and struggle of a person with autism. People with mental illness need to see characters they can genuinely relate to depicted on screen as whole people. Media struggles to find a balance between accurate depictions and glamorization of mental health issues.
Many people have already started to raise awareness of mental health issues in media. Dr. Pozios was inspired to create his comic Aura, which depicts a superhero named Alexis Pope, who also has bipolar disorder. Alexis suffers from severe migraines with a visual aura as a result of her illness, and is a survivor of a suicide attempt. The important distinction Dr. Pozios makes in Aura is that bipolar disorder is a part of her identity, but is not who she is. The story shows the main character observing and dealing with stigmas in her environment.
The panelists also recommend a few things to check out if you are looking for accurate and relatable content involving mental illness. Dr. Pozios recommends the award winning Shooters from Vertigo, which is about a combat veteran’s experience with PTSD, and Cinemax TV show The Knick, which is about medical professionals in early 1900s New York, and deals heavily with addiction and early treatment and medical practices of the time. Complex recommends reading The Glass Castle, which is about children growing up in a negligent and impoverished household with parents who suffer from mental illness and alcoholism. She also recommends the film Short Term 12 which tells the story of a group home supervisor for at risk teens, and stars Academy Award winning actress Brie Larson (Room). Dr. Yen recommends the animated series BoJack Horseman for its authentic portrayal of mental illnesses that are often ignored, including depression, PTSD and self destructive behaviors.
By holding panels of these nature the speakers hope to encourage the creation of more accurate depictions of mental health in entertainment. They would like to address the gap between where representations are now and where they should be. Depictions have improved greatly over past decade, and we still have long way to go. Starting discussions about this topic is the only way to move the future in the right direction.