What “Joker” Gets All Too Right about Mental Health in America

What Joker Gets Right About Mental Health

Warning: This Piece Contains Spoilers

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” was supposed to make you sick to your stomach; the film has grossed close to a billion dollars worldwide because of its ability to do just that. But moviegoers may not have been prepared to be made sick because of how the title character was initially treated…or to feel anything resembling sympathy towards him. Nevertheless, the film is resonating with many on both sides of the behavioral health conversation because of the startling and tragic accuracy with which it depicts the plight of the low-income mentally ill.

The gritty, brutal and entirely adult retelling of the classic Batman villain’s origin story takes the character out of the safe, cartoonish Adam West world, and into an environment that mirrors the dysfunctional and barbaric chaos of 1970’s New York, a time and a place in which mental illness was considered weak, freakish and something of which to be ashamed. It’s a slow-burn portrait of Arthur Fleck’s transition to The Joker, hastened by a brutal assault and subsequent failures of the mental health system to adequately address his care needs.

A recent article in Vanity Fair is just one of many that highlights the film’s frighteningly spot-on picture of what people with limited means who are suffering from mental illness go through every day, and how societal provocation can be a prime incubator for violent, disaffected, criminal behavior.

About Those Spoilers

In the beginning of the film, we see Arthur trying to eek out a living as a clown (a job we can tell he genuinely loves). The already-borderline character is brutally assaulted, the fallout from which ultimately leads to problems at his job, which culminate in his termination. Parallel to this narrative, the state funding that allows him access to counseling and medication for his nervous laughing condition and other mental illnesses is abruptly cut. A dysfunctional (to put it mildly) family dynamic and brutally harsh treatment from the upper echelon of society (we won’t spoil everything) completes this caustic cocktail, and reminds us all of the ultimate fragility of life’s circumstances.

Why So Serious?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 43.3 percent of US adults with mental illness actually received treatment in 2018, and that 64.1 percent of US adults with serious mental illness received treatment in 2018. A little over half of children age 6-17 receive treatment for their diagnosed mental health issues. These numbers indicate a deep gap in fulfillment of behavioral health care for millions who need it, many of whom suffer from co-occurring alcohol and drug addiction.

Despite affecting over 25 percent of the global population, mental illness continues to be met with scorn, stigma and ridicule in many areas of the world, a perception that dictates real healthcare policy and outcomes. While there is obviously no excusing or rationalizing the end result of the title character, the frequent and impossible-to-ignore truths regarding the treatment and perception of mental health in “Joker” are all too telling.