By Janina Scarlet, Ph.D.
Superheroes and other characters from books, movies and TV shows have arguably become an important part of our modern mythology. As such, pop culture characters have an important impact in helping consumers learn about personal growth, conflict management, as well as mental health.
Historically, mental illness was something only villains struggled with. Many villains used to be depicted as one-dimensional mentally ill characters that were out to take over the world and cause chaos just for the sake of doing evil deeds. Similarly, superheroes were represented as almost infallible and invulnerable. In these representations, mental illness was something that could have been perceived as a rare and undesirable, and even evil trait. As a potential result, mental illness used to be far less understood and more stigmatized than it is now.
Nowadays, the heroes, the villains, as well as antiheroes are usually presented as more complex characters. Often both the hero and the villain may experience a similar kind of a traumatic or otherwise painful event but the two might make different choices in regard to how they decide to cope with their experiences. Examples of heroes and villains with similar origin stories but alternate life pathways include Luke Skywalker vs. Anakin Skywalker (“Star Wars”), Charles Xavier vs. Magneto (“The X-Men”), and The Doctor vs. The Master (“Doctor Who”). Superhero stories and other pop culture media can help viewers to understand that their mental health experiences are common and that they are not alone in their struggles. They also help the viewers to recognize that it is our choices that define who we are, not our experiences.
Whereas in the past, movies and TV shows might have helped us to escape from our painful experiences, nowadays, they serve as a model for teaching us how to manage them. For example, by watching TV shows, such as “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil,” we might be able to better understand what trauma-related disorders might look like in some people, as well as how to cope with them. Specifically, these shows can teach us that finding meaning in our traumatic experiences and finding a sense of purpose can help motivate us to help others.
In addition, superhero and other pop culture films, books and TV shows can help us learn that although sometimes a particular situation may look hopeless and grim, things are likely to change for the better with time. This is an important message, especially for those struggling with major depressive disorders and other mental health difficulties, which might make us believe that things will never get better. Superheroes teach us that by bonding together to fight a common enemy (which includes bullies, traumas, losses, and fears), we might be able to defy all odds. Sometimes, in the moment of our greatest suffering, our greatest strength is born. Our painful experiences might remind us what matters to us, what we stand for, what we care about the most, and potentially encourage us to take action to help ourselves or others. And that is the making of a true superhero.
— Dr. Janina Scarlet is a North Park-based clinical psychologist and is the author of ‘Therapy Quest’ (released May 7), a revolutionary self-help book, which combines therapy with an interactive fantasy quest. For more information, go to superhero-therapy.com.
If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the suicide hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line: 741-741.
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