Sean and Marlis were panelists at Snake River Fandom Con 2018.
This was one of their panels, along with Alison Arngrim and Richard Ian Cox
In modern entertainment, a lot of our villains have some sort of mental health issue. Why wouldn’t they? It takes some sort of crazy to want to hurt others the way our villains do, right?
Villians Should Have Mental Illnesses
There are a lot of mental illnesses out there, and most people haven’t heard of most of them. Much for the same reason that most people haven’t heard of most diseases in general. There are a lot of ways the human body can go wrong, and unless you are studying medicine or anatomy or another body-based science, why would you learn about it all?
Fortunately, medical doctors are highly respected in our culture, and when you are phsycially ill, those around you can see that, and encourage you to go to the doctor to get help. Even your employment (hopefully) has some system in place that helps you afford going to the doctor. Or you are lucky enough to live in a country where the government cares about your wellbeing enough that they will pay, just please go to the doctor and get help. We don’t want you getting sick.
Unfortuantely, mental health is not as accepted. This is mainly because those around you CAN’T see the pain and trouble you are in. If you’re leg is broken, it is bending in the wrong direction, but if your brain is broken, you are thinking in the wrong direction. And that’s something you can fix by thinking differently, right? WRONG.
So giving characters mental health issues can help explain to others what is going on in your head. They don’t understand what OCD looks like? There are characters that display all of the symptoms, usually in a condensed fashion, for the sake of story timing. Go watch Lord of the Rings again, because Gollum/Smeagol is a characterized example of having Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder).
Others who are mentally healthy can now see an exaggerated character who suffers from symptoms, and you can say “That. That is essentially what is going on in my head.” Of course you can then follow that up with details and clarifications.
Villains Shouldn’t Be The Only Ones With Mental Illnesses
However, lets say you are a little kid, and you start to think “I think that my brain doesn’t work like other people’s brains,” but when you look around for something similar to yourself, all you see are bad guys. Evil people, who are saying the things you are thinking. Does that mean that you are a bad guy too? Of course not! But you don’t know that. All the heroes seem to be just fine, and all of the people that seem different, are the villains.
So now you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t want to tell anyone that you are different, because then maybe they will think you are a bad guy too! Now you are just bottling it up inside, not getting help when you definitely need it. If someone has asthma, they don’t think they are Darth Vader, because there are plucky heroes that have asthma too. Now entertainment has normalized asthma, and you don’t vilify yourself for something out of your control.
On a more personal note, when I was a child, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I didn’t know what that was, but I knew that I was “out of control,” unless I took my medication. So the next time that I was watching TV and movies, I didn’t see any heroes that had to take medication out of fear of being “out of control,” but I did see villains who, when they got “off their meds,” turn into evil people. Was I one of those people? Am I a monster who can only be controlled by bizzare chemicals entering my body and changing who I am from the inside? That’s what I thought, and looking back, I don’t blame myself for thinking so.
So entertainment as a whole needs to take responsibility, and make sure that not every villain is riddled with mental health issues, and not every hero is clear minded and wholly sane.
Good Villains Without Mental Health Issues
There are already some really good villains out there that don’t have mental illnesses, and that’s good, because not every bad person has mental health issues. You cannot chalk it up to “They are evil because they are insane.” There are plenty of bad people that are that way for totally normal reasons.
Take the Joker for instance. Many people, including Batman, say that the reason the Joker does what he does, is because he is crazy, thus perpetuating the idea that mental illness is a “bad” thing. In fact, the Joker is nihilistic in his world views, meaning that he believes everything is meaningless, and only has the meaning that you put onto it. He didn’t come to this conclusion from any mental instability, rather from seeing people make bad decisions around him, and realizing that the world has kept spinning.
Loki, in the MCU, however, has come to his darker ways from a feeling of abandoned entitlement. He believed that he was just as worthy of love and leadership as his brother Thor. He understood that Thor was born first, and thus first to the throne, but when Thor was unworthy of such a position, he thought that he, Loki, should be considered. When that didn’t happen, he got upset, and rightfully so. Everything he has done since then has been a reaction of vengeance and payback.
Good Heroes With Mental Health Issues
This is the most important. When someone realizes that they have a mental illness, they need to be able to look at a hero who has also made it through what they are going through. They need to know that there is hope that they can rise above the situation they have found themselves in, and can still be the protagonist in their own lives.
Matt Murdock, or The Daredevil, has suffered with Depression in previous runs. A man who not only lost his parents at a young age, but also his sight. As a child, he turned to violence and failed to control his anger management. Even as an adult, whether on the page or on screen, he has continued to lose people close to him, and he can’t always handle it.
“Depression is a living thing. It exists by feeding on your darkest moods. And it is always hungry. Anything that challenges it — anything — it wants that thing to stop. Anything that makes you feel good, anyone who brings joy, it will drive away so it can grow without interference. Its primary goal is to isolate you. At its worst, it will literally paralyze you rather than allow you to feel anything at all. At its worst, you are numb. You are drained. — Daredevil #10 — Mark Waid
Also in the Marvel category is Moon Knight. Moon Knight is famous for being a hero with intense Dissociative Identity Disorder. He truly sees himself as two separate people sharing one body. This causes the character to not remember much of what has happened around him, and it causes a lot of trouble. However, at the end of the day, he is still a hero. He still fights the good fight, in an attempt to bring down evil.
So at the end of the day, it is really good to have representation of mental illness in our characters, in the same way its good to represent Women, People of Color, and the LGBT+ Community in our characters. Everyone needs a character like them that they can look up to and admire, and say “If they can be great, so can I.”