Mental Health Representation Matters

When diagnosing fictional characters, therapists need to be responsible.

Posted Sep 06, 2018

Many of us like talking about pop culture, whether it's comics, TV shows, movies, books, or video games. For those of us in the mental health field (and for many outside of this field), it may be fun to occasionally speculate about a fictional character's psychological perspective. 

Perspective taking can actually help foster  empathy building and compassion toward others. However, diagnosing characters or people whom therapists have not evaluated in a session can be risky.

Sure, some fictional characters, such as Storm from the X-Men, are known to struggle from certain disorders (e.g., claustrophobia, fear of tight spaces). On the other hand, other characters, such as Batman, who experienced traumatic events (i.e., loss of his parents) do not necessarily meet the criteria for a mental health disorder. Sure, Batman may display and exhibit certain symptoms, which can be found across certain disorders, including PTSD and depression disorders. However, for someone to be diagnosed with a disorder, they have to meet the required criteria of symptoms over a set amount of time AND these symptoms need to be dysfunctional enough to warrant a mental health diagnosis (i.e., these symptoms get in the way of the individual's functions, such as work, school, social, etc.). 

DC Comics recently hired a mental health professional to psychoanalyze popular comic-book characters, such as Batman, Superman, Harley Quinn, and others. Personally and professionally, I believe that providing mental health education using fictional characters can be extremely helpful in assisting people in understanding mental health and recovery. HOWEVER, such education practices must be handled delicately and appropriately. In diagnosing characters with mental illness without an explanation, without evidence, and in such a blasé format grossly misrepresents mental health and poses a threat to further pathologize mental health for those who actually struggle with these disorders in real life. 

It is my life mission to provide accurate representation and understanding to the public about mental health and this is my plea to writers, creators, and mental health professionals, please do take careful precaution when discussing these topics. We are finally starting to see a reduction of mental health stigma and comics, such as "Heroes in Crisis" will hopefully help further that mission. However, we all need to take care to ensure that mental health is properly represented and isn't caricatured. This is how we can change the world for the better — providing thorough and compassionate understanding. And only with understanding, can we have recovery.