Why Does the Media Portray Mental Illness as a Superpower?


Last night was the premiere of Legion, a television show detailing the life of David Haller (the son of X Men’s Charles Xavier) a diagnosed schizophrenic living in a mental hospital. Fans of the comics will know that David possesses many superpowers, many of which form from his deranged mental state.  While we may not know how exactly Legion’s superpowers will unfold in the new series, this is not the first time media has likened mental disorders to superpowers.

In the newly released Split, it is revealed that Kevin’s (who suffers from dissociative identity disorder) last personality is that of a superhuman who can climb up walls and is immune to bullets. In the critically panned Lucy, Scarlett Johansson’s character can throw men three times her size against a wall using only her brain. Batman becomes his own superhero through his inability to move on from his parents’ untimely deaths and the debilitating depression that accompanied it.

The trend of utilizing mental disorders as a means of developing a sympathetic superhero is not only dangerous as in undermines the real experiences of those suffering with cognitive difficulties, but represents a real lack of understanding of the 43.8 million Americans that experience a mental illness every year. Romanticizing chemical imbalances, trauma, and the 200 different forms of mental disease as having superhuman abilities only helps to keep real stigmas of these disorders alive and well in a society in which physical sickness prevails over psychological sickness.

So where does our obsession with the mentally impaired being blessed with some sort of superhuman ability originate? Americans have wrongly deduced for decades that humans only utilize 10% of our brains and that somewhere deep in the 90% of our gray matter we have superhuman abilities beyond common deduction and reasoning. This is the premise of the film Lucy in which the titular character has ingested an experimental drug that allows her to use the other 90% of her brain, which results in her obtaining psychokinetic powers.


Scarlet Johansson in Lucy 

This myth is just that: a myth. Scientists have disputed this sentiment, repeatedly insisting that we use 100% of our brains. Think of a person who has had a stroke or has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. We can see the debilitating effects of brain damage, but it is far less than 90% of total brain mass. This means that they, and all of us, rely on more than 10% of our brains just to execute daily functions.

The closest iteration of a superhuman in the flesh is that of a savant. Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin Medical School defines savant syndrome as “a rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some ‘island of genius’ which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap.” The most famous savant, ironically, is the fictitious Raymond Babbitt, the focus of the 1988 film Rain Man. Babitt displays remarkable abilities in math and memory but at the cost of social skills, language development, and sensory processing.

The problem with Rain Man is not in its portrayal of autism (psychologists have lauded the film for its authenticity) but rather in its representation. Rain Man, released close to thirty years ago, was one of the first films to address autism spectrum disorders, and surely the most successful film to document the effects of the condition. According to Treffert, only 10% of those on the autism spectrum actually possess savant-like qualities. He acknowledges the dangers of this representation by stating: “There is a danger of walking away from the movie with the impression that all autistic persons are savants and that all savants are autistic.”


Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man

The popularity of the film undercuts the struggles that those with autism experience on a daily basis. Rain Man asserts that the cognitive disabilities associated with autism can be offset by special god-like abilities in memory, when in reality the majority of sufferers do not experience these. This allows for the public to underestimate the social disparities in autistic children and adults and therefore underestimate the devastating effects of the disorder themselves.

This concept that the media helps to downplay the suffering of the mentally handicapped is not only restricted to Rain Man, but in other films that depict psychological illness as a superhuman feat. This is most troubling in films that associate supervillains with mental disorders. One such film is the aforementioned Split in which Kevin (who suffers from DID, or split personalities) abducts three young girls. The film tries to build sympathy by characterizing Kevin as a soul that has lost control due to his disorder, but raises red flags in the mental health community by doing so.


James McAvoy in Split

Split, by portraying a character who is mentally ill as a perpetrator of violence only helps to promote the unsubstantiated stigma that those with mental disorders are dangerous. Horror films including Psycho, Halloween, and The Silence of the Lambs all chronicle mentally handicapped individuals as murderers, and even more dangerously, suggest that their violence is the product of their disorders. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that only 3-5% of all violent acts can be attributed to the mentally ill. Conversely, those diagnosed with severe mental illness are 10 times more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the general population.

With all of this being said, it is clear to see that the media lacks fundamental education on mental illness in their depictions of the mentally handicapped as harnessing deep rooted superpowers. Not only does the media not take an initiative to actually learn about the human brain and the disorders that arise from brain abnormalities, but it puts forth harmful stigmas and capitalizes on the differences between the mentally impaired and “normal” individuals without psychiatric diagnoses.

If there is one thing that Hollywood gets correct when alluding to the mentally ill as having super powers it is the fact that the mentally ill are stronger than us. They may not possess the ability to fly at super speeds, pick up and throw cars as if they weigh as light as a feather, or save cities from danger, but they are far more emotionally strong. It takes true strength to leave your house and to ignore the stares that accompany schizophrenic outbursts. It takes true power for a depressed person to get out of bed and face the day when their brains are screaming at them to get back to sleep. It take true skill to see the mentally ill just as they are: as human.

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