Even Superheroes Get The Blues
Mental health issues directly affect 20 per cent of Canadians over the course of their lifetime regardless of age, culture, and socioeconomic status. A statistic like that would suggest that some of our favourite superheroes would be affected, too. In fact, a few superfans (who also happen to have backgrounds in the mental health field) have turned their attentions to the world of caped crusaders and masked vigilantes to find out what might be getting them down.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Superheroes often come with histories of severe trauma. Batman, for example, witnessed the murder of his parents. Spiderman lost his parents AND the uncle who took him in. Wolverine, too, watches as his family is killed and his mother commits suicide. The trauma causes him to lose his memory and could be part of the reason he’s such an angry-seeming guy.
According to Tim Stevens, a Mental Health Supervisor, the X-Man lovingly referred to as Canucklehead “does demonstrate some features of PTSD, including hyper-vigilance, outbursts of anger, feelings of detachment, and a resistance towards connecting with others.” But the diagnosis he comes up with is different: Wolverine likely suffers from Acute Stress Disorder, though Stevens calls it “a particularly chronic and intense manifestation of it.”
This one might surprise you. Do either Dr. Bruce Banner or The Hulk seem like anxious people to you? An armchair psychologist might diagnose Banner as someone in need of anger management therapy but a real mental health expert would beg to differ.
“Differentiating between anxiety and psychosis would guide the treatment approach,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Natalie Petyk. “It sounds like, on the anxiety side, it would be more of an agoraphobic presentation if he’s isolated to the point of staying in his home for fear of coming outside into the functioning world.”
While the Spider-Man of the early 21st century may be dealing with something like PTSD, the Spider-Man of the future, Spider-Man 2099 (aka Miguel O’Hara), struggles with addiction. After he’s tricked into taking a futuristic recreational drug called Rapture, he becomes instantly addicted—the drug is engineered to bond with the user’s DNA. (If you thought bath salts sounded scary, the drugs of the future will terrify you.) Spider-Man 2099 does go into recovery but only after terrible hardships.
Dissociative Personality Disorder
When it comes to Selina Kyle and her alter-ego Catwoman, Kleptomania might be the first mental health issue that comes to mind.
Her more serious problems, however, could be dissociative personality disorder and reactive attachment disorder. “Selina Kyle expresses symptoms of reactive attachment disorder: a condition resulting from negative and/or absent parenting that results in inappropriate social interactions; indiscriminate sociability in Selina’s case,” says The Airspace’s Psychology editor Melissa McSweeney. A rough childhood is also the likely source of her DID. Dissociative Personality Disorder patients, says McSweeney, “experienced childhood traumas, thus posing the possibility that Selina Kyle took on the persona of Catwoman as an escape mechanism.”
Probably the most psychoanalyzed of all superheroes (multiple books have been written about his mental health), Batman, with his glum demeanor and propensity for cladding himself all in black, is the superhero often associated with depression. Remember: in The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne had basically withdrawn from society for nearly a decade. He’s also obsessed (to the point where he’ll sacrifice his own life) with ridding Gotham of any and all villains. Could this be a manifestation of OCD (a condition that can lead to or aggravate depression)?
Whatever his issues are, Dr. Petyk says he’s not dealing with them well: “He just turns into a predator and puts fears in others–which is very retaliatory. I also think it’s a coping mechanism to no longer really be in touch with the vulnerability of his own fears.” Translation: the Caped Crusader could really use someone to talk to.
Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan once said that superheroes “fill a gap in the pop culture psyche, similar to the role of Greek mythology. There isn’t really anything else that does the job in modern terms.” Like the Greek gods, superheroes are powerful but flawed. It’s their flaws that let us relate to them so easily and root for them when they struggle.
If you’re struggling too, or know someone who is, there’s help. Knowing where to get it is the first step. Click the link to see the resources available to you and to hear stories about overcoming mental health issues from real life heroes like six-time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes.
January 25 is Bell Let’s Talk Day. Tweet about your favourite sci-fi show or character (or anything you want) with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk to help raise money to support mental health initiatives in Canada.