In the psychological thriller Joker, we see Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, as a mentally unstable man suffering from isolation and bullying. Bad day after bad day, we watch as the psychopathic killer is driven to madness and continues to battle with his inner demons.
On the heels of October’s Mental Illness Awareness Month, we as a society are trying to become more familiar with mental health issues and more educated on the seemingly common issues of depression and anxiety. So when presented with a film like Joker, how can we make sense of the increasingly violent acts of Arthur Fleck, knowing he is struggling with mental illness? To help better understand the facts of mental illness versus the way they are depicted in the movies, we spoke to Dr. Amanda Mark, a clinical neuropsychologist at AdventHealth.
Fact Versus Fiction
When asked if she felt Joker accurately portrayed someone struggling with mental illness, Dr. Mark said, “Acknowledging that Joker is a movie based on a fictional comic book character and ultimately created for entertainment purposes, it does have many very real, poignant scenes.” She continued to add, “Throughout the movie, it was readily apparent that the character was quite overwhelmed with his complex medical history and increasing demands made on him, while he had almost no support system and what little access he had to resources quickly diminished.”
Does this mean that those with mental illness should be feared, since Arthur Fleck is so violent? Simply put, no. “The film accurately reflects that mental illness is not well understood and can represent something unpredictable, which makes it easy to assign stereotypes or to be afraid.” Similar to mental illness, neurological injury can also present as something not well understood. Dr. Mark goes on to add, “If we see someone who acts in ways we don’t understand or are outside of what we are used to, we try to make sense out of it and, if we can’t, the ambiguity may create a sense of fear.”
Now while the fear the fictional city of Gotham had for the Joker may be very real, and justified based on his actions, the idea that mental illness equals violence is, in reality, not truthful. “People who live with severe mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence,” Dr. Mark told us. “It’s not mental illness that causes someone to act violently any more than a headache causes someone to act violently. It’s the situation and context,” she said.
What’s the Difference Between Stress and Mental Illness?
In Joker’s representation of mental illness through Arthur Fleck, a man is seen to be mentally deteriorating as his violent acts become more frequent and severe. And while we don’t know specifically what illness he is struggling with, we see him continue to lose touch with reality. This is the film’s portrayal of one fictional character’s struggle, and shouldn’t mean that those who struggle with mental illness in real life need to be afraid they’re going to replicate the Joker’s actions.
It is important, however, to understand when something that feels like stress starts to become more. “Stress is a normal part of life that everyone experiences, and different people react differently to stress. However, there are some key indicators that are true for everyone that tell us stress is becoming worrisome,” Dr. Mark said. Adding, “When stress is prolonged, meaning it continues without a break, or when it is unmanageable, meaning you have difficulty coping with its effects, it is time to reach out for help.”
Asking for help can be difficult for some, and often times people attempt to manage stress by ignoring its effects or trying not to think about it. When symptoms start to present themselves, they may be brushed off rather than identified as a source of a serious problem.
“Signs that are physical symptoms (exhaustion, muscle tension, stomach upset, headaches, changes in sleep patterns, or weight changes), as well as cognitive symptoms (difficulty focusing, concentrating, or remembering important details) and emotional (irritability, short temper, constant worry) may indicate it’s time to see a doctor,” says Dr. Mark. Other signs that stress is becoming a problem may include attempts to relieve symptoms through use of alcohol or drugs, excessive shopping, or gambling.
It’s important to note that while the exact cause of mental illness is not known, the prevailing research suggests a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Neurological injury, developmental disruption, genetics, and exposure to abuse or trauma are some examples of these factors. While those with a family history of mental illness may be at increased risk, it’s more complicated than a single-family link. Stressful life situations, such as losing a job, or even happy situations that may be stressful — such as getting married, or buying a home, could also contribute to onset of symptoms.
What Should I Do If I’m Experiencing Symptoms?
While everyone’s needs are different, a doctor or mental health professional can help pinpoint those needs. There is no easy way to determine an exact mental illness without the help of a professional. This is because many symptoms overlap and can look similar. In general, changes in behaviors that interfere with daily living — such as problems at work or in relationships, withdrawing from family and friends, changes in appetite or sleep, low energy or fatigue, excessive worrying, tearfulness, or feeling restless or on edge, may be warning signs of the two most common types of mental illness: anxiety disorders and depressive episodes.
AdventHealth is here to help those who are struggling with mental illness. For more information, and to begin or continue your journey towards healing, please visit us online.