Batman: Caped Crusader for Mental Health
Dr. Andrea Letamendi discusses the value of addressing mental health issues through the lens of beloved fictional narratives.
Published July 24, 2014
In honor of Batman's 75th anniversary, DC Entertainment declared July 23 Batman Day. What does this have to do with science? More than you might expect, with a little imagination. For psychologist Dr. Andrea Letamendi (aka @ArkhamAsylumDoc) the Batman world, with its roster of criminally insane villains, is a fictional window onto very real issues. Her podcast series, The Arkham Sessions (named for the asylum where Batman's enemies usually wind up after the hero thwarts their plots) analyzes characters and interactions from Batman: The Animated Series to explore subjects such as coping with trauma, mental disorders, patient treatment, and stigmatization of people with mental illnesses.
As discussed previously on this blog, cartoons have been used in public health campaigns almost since the invention of the medium. According to National Library of Medicine historian Dr. Michael Sappol, "It's a powerful technology for forming public opinion. It [doesn't] just reason with the audience, it recruit[s] the audience's emotions." Dr. Letamendi leverages a balance between that emotional resonance and the relative security of fiction to engage her audience in consideration of challenging themes. "It's a way to educate people about psychological science and address important topics in a way that feels safe—less threatening or less personal," she says. "At the same time, many people feel very connected to these fictional narratives and the stories actually help us to tune in."
Dr. Letamendi spoke with Science and the City from Comic-Con in San Diego about superheroes and psychology.
Science and the City: Why apply psychological analysis to fictional characters?
Dr. Andrea Letamendi: As a psychologist, I'm invested in broadening public knowledge about the psychological sciences. I find that one way I can do that is to speak to my passion and the passion of many others: comic books, science fiction, and fantasy. I've had wonderful opportunities to speak at universities and at Comic-Con and other cultural conventions to utilize these narratives that people can really relate to—the stories, heroes, and villains that people already know—to examine important health issues. It's fun but it's also an educational advantage.
S&C: Are there useful parallels between cartoon characters and real people?
AL: Yes! For example, my first experience speaking on a panel was talking about how comic book heroes are actually really similar to real life heroes, specifically soldiers who have experienced combat-related trauma. I used to practice at a veterans hospital and have a lot of experience working with soldiers and veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and psychological injuries. The panel was a chance to talk openly about the impact of recent wars on the people who fight in them, and how the field of psychology is struggling with how to meet the needs of the men and women coming back from those conflicts. It's a really serious topic, but we can draw upon these fictional narratives that simulate and evoke real tensions and interests in a way that feels safe and remains relatable.
S&C: How does your series, named for the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, avoid associations between mental illness and criminal behavior?
AL: It's really important to us to always make that distinction. When we started the show we knew we'd be examining the psychology of a lot of villains, but we're not just trying to come up with labels or diagnoses for them. Every episode of the Batman series has a lot of psychological elements to it. We end up talking about such a wide range of subjects—memory loss, substance abuse, anxiety, family issues, patient care and hospitalization, childhood trauma. We speak about these issues in a way that deliberately doesn't stigmatize, but rather helps to normalize these experiences. The result is that we're very inclusive in a way that let's everyone relate. We include Batman in our analyses, not just villains, and he's a character with a lot of issues as well. My hope is that it combats the idea that people with mental health problems are villains or criminals.
S&C: Do you have a favorite character?
AL: I like the villains who are overlooked because they're just seen as being big and burly, like Killer Croc or Clayface. They're like onions. When you unravel them you realize there's a deep psychological history and trajectory there that got them to where they are [by the time you meet them in the series].
S&C: Are there lessons from Gotham City that might apply to real cities' policies on mental health care?
AL: There are real barriers to appropriate, evidence-based care. In big cities with diverse populations, we deal with issues of underserved populations that don't have access to care. There are groups of people with structural and psychosocial barriers to getting care. Sometimes we struggle to provide care that's culturally or linguistically appropriate. We need to think about all of these psychosocial elements to ensure that people have opportunities to heal.
S&C: Any parting thoughts?
AL: It is Comic-Con week! If you're coming, please keep in mind that you can put together a curriculum of educational panels on really interesting topics like psychology, underrepresentation, and gender equality. Comic-Con is fun and a celebration of superheroes, but it's also an opportunity for education and to demystify and reduce some of the myth around science.
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