You may not think that Batman would make a very effective advocate for positive mental health, and, well, you’d be right! He’d be a terrible mental health advocate for so many reasons, but that’s not why I want to write about here.
Having played through Batman: Arkham Knight recently, I was quite struck at how Batman’s struggles throughout the game were not too dissimilar from the struggles of someone dealing with poor mental health. Beware of spoilers ahead as I delve into the game’s story:
OK, still with me? Good, that means you’re happy with spoilers about the game’s story and, like me, you think this idea is worth exploring. Good for you! Let’s go on a journey!
People who have played the game will perhaps not be too surprised to read that I believe the strongest mental health metaphor comes in the form of The Joker’s portrayal here. Now, to bring you up to speed, Batman: Arkham Knight is the latest in the series of Batman games, with ‘Arkham’ in the title, which all form parts of the same story. By the start of Arkham Knight, Joker has already died as a result of blood poisoning from a chemical compound called Titan, and the first thing you do as a player is to cremate his body. A harrowing start to the game, that sets the mood for this dark tale and gets across the message that Joker’s very much dead and gone. However, Joker’s legacy lives on in various forms, but most notably as hallucinations that appear to Batman as a result of having been contaminated with Joker’s blood.
What all of this means in practice is that you, as the player, spend most of the game with an omni-present Joker around while you’re trying to get on with your various important duties defending Gotham.
There’s two things that are quite insidious about Joker’s presence in the game:
Firstly, only Batman can see him – Part of what make real life mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, difficult to deal with is that they can be invisible to other people. If you have a broken leg, you can see that and deal with it accordingly. If you are suffering with High Functioning Depression, you could seem fine to those around you, possibly a bit tired, but be dealing with things that sometimes make you feel like you’re fighting for your life. Indeed there are times when Joker’s presence can range from a minor annoyance to an overpowering force that threatens to consume you.
Secondly, and this is a strange one, so bare with me, it’s possible to enjoy having him around – I must admit, I thought Mark Hammil’s vocal rendition of the clown prince of crime had been so on point in the previous Arkham games that I was pleased to see him back in Arkham Knight, despite how unrepentantly despicable his character is and the clearly dark and twisted intentions he has. Oftentimes Joker appears as just a distraction to Batman, sometimes even bringing back painful memories, sometimes making horribly dark and inappropriate jokes about Batman’s loved ones, sometimes jumping out at him when he least expects it, and sometimes trying to convince him to just give up and let the Joker in his head take charge.
However, every now and again, I caught myself laughing at his jokes, enjoying his twisted sense of humour before immediately feeling guilty. His rivalry with Batman sometimes gets twisted into respect and there are parts of the game where he’s actively rooting for you and even acting like they’re in some comically dysfunctional romantic relationship.
He even occasionally has helpful bits of advice. If you’re stuck for what to do to get past a problem he might drop sarcastic hints or stand next to the switch or clue you’re looking for to progress. Playing the game, I found the occasional gratitude I had for Joker quite unnerving. If everything he did was against my interests, it would be easier to disregard whatever he’s saying, but since he could be so helpful and entertaining at times, I find myself listening to him more, including times when Joker’s more actively sabotaging you.
Dealing with mental health issues has often been likened to having a voice in your head telling you things that don’t serve your interests. Depression can sometimes manifest as an internal monologue, telling you you’re not worthy of being happy or that nothing you do is ever good enough. If you suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, you might be having all kinds of internal discussions when facing challenges or making decisions, even fairly inconsequential ones. You may worry about what happens if you do or don’t do this, what happens if you fail and who you might let down. And, as illustrated with Joker’s inconsistent behaviour, it can be quite difficult to distinguish between what inner dialogues are in your interest and what aren’t.
Throughout the game, you can see Joker’s influence on Batman become stronger. When Joker first appears to Batman, he appears sick and diseased as he was towards the end of his life, but later in the game, he appears in perfect health as he comes close to taking full control of Batman. Joker’s influence also increases when Batman is exposed to Fear Toxins, a chemical weapon used by arch-villain, Scarecrow, sometimes to alarming extents. In one encounter, Batman appears to be talking with Joker’s voice, delighting in the violence he’s engaging in and even pushing him towards murder, something he has taken a personal oath to never do.
The fact that Joker’s negative influence grows in response to Fear Toxins is quite telling as being put in states of stress, such as fear, can be known to worsen mental health conditions and allow the worries in your head to take over. To quote Peter Stillman from another video game series, Metal Gear Solid – “When you give into the fear, the darkness comes.”
There is some debate in the field of outdoor adventure education practice as to the relationship between facing one’s fears and developing positive mental health. Many outdoor activity practitioners operate on the assumption that by overcoming activities with elements of perceived risk, you can increase your resilience and better respond to stress in the future. However, it is also generally understood that pushing participants too far and inducing too much stress can lead to the opposite effect and induce trauma that might worsen a person’s mental health.
In the case of our hero, Batman, he eventually defeats the Joker in his head towards the end of the game when Scarecrow has him captured and injects him with a concentrated dose of Fear Toxins. Initially, Joker becomes stronger and seems to take over completely and the player finds themselves loosely in control of him as he engages in a rampage through Gotham. However, Joker finds himself in a dark crypt-like place as Batman’s consciousness starts to fight back and eventually, Batman returns to the player’s control and defeats The Joker, throwing him into a sealed cage in his mind before disappearing into the mist as Batman overcomes his affliction once and for all.
Now, let’s be careful here, as this final confrontation does very much oversimplify the process of overcoming mental health problems. We’ve explored the similarities between Batman and a Mental Health suffer, but now let’s look a bit more at how he deals with his condition. Throughout the game, we see Batman as a heroic, but highly flawed individual, particularly with regards with his Mental Health. He takes on an unreasonable amount of responsibility, whilst consistently denies offers of help from those around him, all the while holding himself up to impossible standards and experiencing flashbacks of traumatic events that you could easily argue demonstrate the ever present Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that he has never dealt with. Taking the appearance of Joker as a metaphor for deteriorating mental health, he responds to this by mostly ignoring it and not even telling anyone what he’s going through. The final confrontation with Joker described above seems to conform to the myth that Mental Health issues can be overcome by just soldiering on with an iron will alone, and it is this myth that often worsens cases of Mental Health. In fact, those who have completed the ‘Knightfall’ ending of Arkham Knight may argue that, although he did great things to protect Gotham, he ultimately failed to look after his own wellbeing.
So, if you can’t beat your issues into submission, what can you do with them? In recent years, a lot has been done to reduce the stigma surrounding Mental Health and to help those suffering from its various forms. In the UK, institutions such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides information and advice for various issues, whilst GPs at your local medical practice can be a good first point of contact to refer you to all sorts of resources and programmes to help sufferers out. It is also heartening to see the many charities out there as well, including Mind, SANE, and Rethink, offering varying degrees of support and guidance.
Off the top of my head, various smaller things you can do to boost your Mental Health include spending time in green spaces, engaging in stimulating physical and mental exercise, and just making a point to reserve some self-care time to do things that boost your mood, rather than feeling you have to work yourself into the ground – the trap that Batman fell into and I’m sure many of us have also fallen into. And, of course, I cannot overemphasise how important it is to keep talking to friends and family to make sure you have an active support network and that you’re not suffering in silence while you’re dealing with something that other people can’t see, but is very real to you.
The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone.
I guess I could summarise this up by saying: “Be less Dark Knight, and more Adam West!”
(Photo from IGN – click the link for a brilliant interview with the man himself from Comic Con 2014)