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On ‘Joker’ and mental illness

Why we must reach out to those who are mentally ill

The World Mental Health Day (October 10) has just gone past, and I remain hopeful that those who are mentally ill will eventually be treated with more compassion and kindness, and an attempt will be made to understand their life experience rather than viewing them first and foremost as a danger to other human beings.

In the context of the 2019 movie ‘Joker‘, some instances that I loved about the movie include how the mentally ill Joker is still capable of caregiving (the way he takes of his mother i.e.), how he holds onto a job for a while (even if he is a victim of violence and gets beaten up), how his vulnerability is exploited (when he is handed over a gun seemingly for self-protection), how he is willing to go through therapy and medication (and doesn’t talk about it otherwise), and how funding can be suddenly cut off for those who are vulnerable (a reality that doesn’t get as much attention as treatments are expensive). Poverty worsens mental illness, and those who suffer from debilitating mental illness are often reduced to poverty because they can’t hold onto a job/ career. I am told the movie ‘The Soloist’ addresses this and am hoping to watch it sometime.

What invariably pains me is the extreme depiction of mental illness. If we are willing to consider that the average human being isn’t going to kill people or take to terrorism, we must also be willing to consider that the average mentally ill person is likely to self-harm and be a victim of violence. Mental illness exists across a spectrum, and with the right treatment and support, people can lead fulfilling lives. When this doesn’t get shown, people shy away from treatment and the stigma intensifies. What also pains me is to see how mental illness patients are reduced to their illness, and agency is taken away from them – as if they are incapable of taking the right decisions. It is only as recently as last year (2018) that mental illness patients can start benefiting from the legal changes in India via the mental healthcare act.

As for those who are shown to be extremely creative (Van Gogh invariably is a benchmark for instance) as a result of their illness – it is true that many are creative, but it is the same as those who are creative and don’t have mental illness. When an excellent actor like Joaquin Phoenix plays a mentally ill patient who causes violence, the association of violence with mental illness becomes stronger. In this movie, I didn’t focus on the association with the current political context – those who are mentally healthy are also capable of violence due to factors shown rather well in the movie, and I am usually keen on encouraging debate on those who are left out from the mainstream. But that has little to do with mental illness itself.

What also doesn’t get spoken about is how social support can easily be withdrawn for those who have mental illness. Sure, any ill person isn’t as much fun to be around with as they cannot take on more tasks or actively participate like those who are healthy – the world does revolve around the healthy – or aren’t going to be prim and proper and appropriate all the time. This does not mean that they are incapable of understanding the impact they have on those who are healthy / ‘normal’, and this does not mean that they are incapable of discerning what’s appropriate and what’s not. The guilt is often all-gnawing and they have to deal with that too in addition to all that illness brings in its wake. Not many know the side effects of medication sometimes include heightened anxiety or weight gain or reduced libido (to name three) – and people drop out of medication due to the impact of side effects too. Not the stuff that movies can readily address, but a hint or two will surely help. Here, they show Joker’s extreme weight loss – we don’t know why it is the case, but that’s the impression we shall carry of the mentally ill.

While caregivers do more than their share of work and books can help derive meaning, do reach out to those who are mentally ill for a more accurate depiction of what it is really like. They will open up, even if it is fraught with hesitation and anxiety due to the stigma. The act of reaching out is extremely powerful.

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