What does Joker have to say about mental illness?

What does Joker have to say about mental illness?

Joaquin Phoenix has received nearly universal acclaim for his award-winning turn as Arthur Fleck – aka the Joker – in one of the most talked-about movies of 2019. Under the direction of Todd Phillips, Joker showed audiences how an aspiring stand-up comic slowly grew into the titular supervillain after a long struggle with mental illness.

Yet despite the warm response to Phoenix’s performance, the reception to the film itself has been far more uneven. That’s particularly true with regards to Joker’s controversial depiction of mental health. Fans of the film view it as an empathetic and relatable portrayal of mental illness, while others have argued that it reinforces harmful negative stigmas.

For critics, the most pernicious element of the film is the way in which it links mental illness with violent behaviour. In the real world, people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than the rest of the population. Only 3 to 5 percent of all violent acts are committed by someone with a severe mental illness, and in fact, people with mental health issues are far more likely to be the victims of violence than they are to be violent themselves.

Unfortunately, the same is often not true in fiction, which perpetuates the notion that people with mental health issues represent a tangible danger to those around them. Joker leans into that stereotype. Phoenix’s Fleck becomes increasingly violent and kills numerous people throughout the film, which implies that his actions can be attributed to his mental illness.  

“The audience walks away associating Fleck’s violent behavior with his mental illness,” psychiatrist Vasilis K. Pozios told USA Today. “It’s like (Fleck) went on his killing spree because he is ‘crazy,’ which reinforces perceptions people might have which are way overblown.”

So what does Joker get right?

At the most basic level, Joker understands that people with mental health issues seldom get the help they need. In the film, Fleck is forced to stop seeing his social worker after his program loses funding. Those kinds of budget cuts happen all the time in the real world. Joker’s homicidal fallout may be sensationalized, but the depiction of a man caught in an indifferent and failing mental health system is eerily appropriate.

“One day you have a program, and the next day you don’t. That’s accurate. You see how that impacts the people you serve,” said social worker Devra Gordon. “People who have mental health issues are suffering, and we don’t do well as a society where people are suffering.”

It’s also worth noting that Fleck is a victim of violence early in the film, and the society he is a part of has little regard for him or his overall well being. Joker recognizes that the world can be quite cruel to people with mental illness, and that callousness resonates with people who rarely get much support from public and private institutions.

Thankfully, there are resources available to people struggling with mental illness. For example, a long-term disability claim will allow you to take some time away from work to focus on recovery. Share Lawyers can help you make sure that your claim gets recognized, so don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re looking for support! 

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