"Joker" released on Oct. 4 in the wake of divisive critical and audience reaction, with worries of gun violence and the perpetuation of social stigma contributing to extensive controversy. This is a topical film with much to say, and the debate has evolved since its release; an undeniable topic at the heart of the film is the presence of mental health issues in our society.
Arthur Fleck, our titular Joker, is a low-income man in his late 30s working as a for-hire clown. He regularly visits a social worker and is prescribed seven different medications to treat an ambiguous mental illness. The majority of the characters in Arthur’s life see him as a broken man, and treat him as such — all but one of his co-workers constantly mock him, and his social worker is indifferent to his deteriorating mental health.
Early on, Arthur loses access to his medication; it was one of the many moments where I thought to myself, “Batman wouldn’t let this happen,” but unfortunately, Batman’s brand of justice is blind to the systemic failures contributing to mental illness, such as the defunding of mental health care institutions. This isn’t just Gotham’s problem — the loss of public psychiatric facilities in the U.S. has been forcing patients into homelessness and imprisonment for decades, leaving them without help or an understanding of how to better their mental health.
“I would define mental health as self-health ... doing things actively to decrease your levels of stress and to take care of your body,” said Sara-Ashley Collins, a freshman psychology major. She described mental illness as “falling through this rabbit hole, and no matter what you do, no matter what you say, you can’t get yourself to not think a certain way.”
Collins works with Active Minds, a student organization at the University of Georgia that aims to combat stigma by educating students about mental health and mental illness, and by encouraging students “to seek help as soon as it is needed.” I spoke with her about our respective experiences and struggles with mental illness. A key element of education is listening. In the movie, Arthur’s coworkers only mock him, contributing to his mental deterioration. Thankfully, Collins knows UGA to be a place where people do a good job of listening and having candid conversations.
Thankfully, Collins knows UGA to be a place where people do a good job of listening and having candid conversations.
However, according to Collins, an unfortunate reality of mental illness is the perpetuated stigma of nonexistence, “a belief that mental illness is not real — like, if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist — or it’s seen as a sign of weakness.” This belief is far from the truth.
In 2018, nearly one in five adults in the United States experienced a categorical “any mental illness” (AMI), such as depression, while 4.6% experienced a categorical “serious mental illness” (SMI), such as schizophrenia. Arthur shows depressive, anxious and antisocial tendencies, but his illness remains a vague miasma of symptoms throughout the film.
"Joker" is not afraid to be blunt with its commentary — the movie draws a direct line from the main character’s mental illness and low-income status to his becoming the Joker, which is reflected in society. According to the 2015 National Surveys of Drug Use and Health, of the estimated 9.8 million adults in the U.S. that experience SMI, 2.5 million are impoverished. In addition, 2.2 million are without access to mental healthcare.
The movie furthers the narrative of the broken down, mentally-ill loner turned violent, but genuinely tries to show how people like Arthur can be helped: access to better mental healthcare, and patience for any and all with mental illness.
"Joker" has a lot to say about the bloody wars we wage in our own minds, but I clearly heard, amidst the violence and laughter, a call for empathy. We are all people, and none of us are broken.