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HomeFeaturesJoker: No Clowning around Mental Illness

Joker: No Clowning around Mental Illness

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Arthur Fleck a.k.a. Joker cannot be realistically placed with a mental illness, or could he?

He is neither schizophrenic nor bipolar since realistically, people who have these conditions cannot orchestrate well-thought-out plans, aren’t very motivated and have no self-control. On the contrary, the latest Joker (played by Joaquin Phoenix) seems to know where he’s supposed to be going and has a lot of control over his decisions. It is also too simple to say he is a psychopath,  although that could be the nearest thing. 

To diagnose a mental illness, we have to consider a lot of factors and I mean a lot.  It’s a whole freakin’ web larger than the skill tree of Skyrim or Path of Exile in the psych or neuro books. And after all the biochemical, physical, developmental and environmental factors checked, there will, most often than not, be an aspect of the disease that is not yet fully understood.

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That’s why Psychiatrists, Neurologists, Neuropsychiatrists and Physicians in general have to study for more than 10-15 years to clinch it.

But the real topic here is depiction.

Although it makes for a good villain to show nuancing in their stories, especially one that the viewer can empathize with, the characterization could easily be misinterpreted by somebody with a closed mind. We are still talking about characters who, at the end of the day, chose evil.

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In the real world, there is only minimal evidence that mental illness is related to violent behavior, and more often than not, people with mental illnesses are actually more prone to be victims of violence.

There are more cases of abuse, rape, and murder being done by healthy people to people with mental illness than vice versa (1) – which was ironically shown in the first half of the film when Arthur Fleck was beaten up (leading to some critics saying they are actually watching two films merged).

The Joker. Photo from Flickr by Marnix de Vries
Photo from Flickr by Marnix de Vries

But realistically speaking as well, people with mental illness have no elevated tendencies to kill or hurt people as much as the other healthy guy.

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That’s why it’s a stigma. 

There’s a selection bias perpetrated by the media, especially when they heavily report incidents of violence committed by someone who has fulfilled the criteria of the mentally ill.  This would get everybody into thinking that someone who has depression, was abused etc. are prone to committing acts of violence.

It’s not.  Most of the motivations for committing acts of violence include various factors like hate, and possibly a lack of education. The least to be attributed to is mental illness.

Just like any other disease that has been stigmatized, like HIV, people can and are actually living normal lives even with mental illnesses.

While in the film, Joker portrayed Arthur’s realistic descent into criminality and violence, his choice will forever be evil and unjustified.

That is the reason why he is a villain.

That is the reason why he will always be evil in the Batman lore.

For me personally, an underlying mental illness is not a justification for a crime committed, because if I myself would have done something heinous while blacked out by substance abuse or delusions, the goal first is to treat my underlying disorder and then in my right mind, I’d have to answer to justice and morality for all the lives I’ve taken.

Now if people feel like the film Joker portrayed one of the worst abuses done to a human being that lead to his criminality, that Arthur Fleck deserves empathy, or he is worthy of emulation, or if they felt uncomfortable because of what happened to the main character then, more often than not, these people are probably pretentious, oblivious or are not ready to face the realities of the real world.   Because, like it or not, worse things have happened to real people, yet these aren’t noticed.  And those who did experience worse trauma surely didn’t end up as murderers. We actually continue to talk and interact with them daily and they continue to live normal lives.

While the film seems to scoop up a whole load of stereotypes and misconceptions about mental illness and violence, there’s one side of it that is worth mentioning, because it does not shy away from truth. 

And that is, that psychopaths actually exist in the most challenging of career paths (2) law, medicine, people who run businesses etc.

On a psychiatric perspective, they have no disease but likely a form of personality trait. The film also tackles this in Thomas Wayne, billionaire physician, running for public service, but this is very evident in most of our leaders, big or small. They are great manipulators, are intelligent, have a great grasp of moral concepts yet choose to neglect them, which is a psychopathic trait. 

Another is to know that it is very easy for people on their thrones to do things such as cutting healthcare budget in times of crisis. Such moves affect not just the Arthur Flecks of society but those who treat them.

That poverty and sickness go hand in hand. That people are staging uprisings because the system is failing. That the media is always nitpicking and self-serving, evident in a scene when a myriad product commercials are shown after the Joker murders a talk show host on live TV. 

And with all these in the background imagine seeking help for a mental illness? The movie depicts how hard this actually is, especially if the person himself/herself and people around him/her have no understanding of the various conditions and factors surrounding it.

While Joker clearly still has the stereotypical media tropes used in cinema, he still is a fictional character, albeit one that is brilliantly nailed from its source material.  What this movie actually does by grounding it as realistically as possible is create things like this: conversations about mental health, poverty, violence, media, and revolt against a higher power.

And that’s the reason why this film is important whether one likes it or not.

So to cap this with a personal note I don’t really care if your soft boy crap shares all the Joker related memes because of how “sad and depressed” you think you are but honestly you are sharing the wrong stuff if what your pretentiousness wants to support is mental illness, shed light on poverty or rage against the government.

Also stop justifying your mistakes and failure to do responsibilities with a mental illness, because one, you sound stupid in the face of all the people who have real diseases and are living normally, two, there’s a name for that trait and it’s called being an asshole.

Lastly, never hesitate to seek help.

If you are doing self-harm, are harming others or have suicidal ideations, you may contact the author and he can arrange you an appointment with a psychiatrist.


  1. Mental illness and violent behavior: the role of dissociation by Aliya R. Webermanncorresponding author and Bethany L. Brand (2017)
  2. Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers by Boddy, CR (2011)

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Austin Salameda
Austin Salameda
In pursuit of a career in medicine and the arts, Austin considers himself a non-conformist. he thinks everything returns to a baseline no matter how far things tilt from right to left. Writes sometimes, tells stories often, provokes always.
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