Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘Joker’ Starts a Conversation on Mental Illness in 2019

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Drishti Gupta

06 March 2023

7 Mins

Joaquin Phoenix gave a gripping, oscar-winning and powerful performance in Todd Phillip’s extremely well-made film-Joker. Joker stirs the much-needed conversation around mental health and certainly has an undeniable impact. Also, spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen Joker yet. But then again, what are you waiting for?

How Joker became Joker

The movie portrays the birth of a criminal due to a lifetime of darkness, negligence, mental illness and isolation. Arthur, who is extremely lonely, depicts the need for constant attention, appreciation and acknowledgement. Throughout the movie, he is looking for some sense of purpose and belonging in life.

Arthur is an aspiring stand-up comic who takes regular therapy sessions with a social worker. He has been a victim of violence in his childhood (which explains a lot of the mental trauma). He has also been shown to take several medications for his mental conditions which include the Pseudobulbar affect. It involves uncontrollable episodes of laughing or crying at inappropriate times. Due to this, Arthur carries a card with him to explain passers-by of his condition in case of an unwanted episode.

The film later focuses on the lack of support from society which is insensitive towards Arthur's condition. The social services are slashed by Gotham (Arthur’s hometown), which leads to Arthur not having access to his medicines and therapy sessions. This results in a downward-spiral for Arthur’s already worse off mental conditions which makes him turn to gun violence and crime. He resorts to these extreme measures to gain control and power and to be accepted by the people of his society. Arthur views himself as a victim of the system. Arthur believes he is constantly ignored, stepped over, tossed to the side. He blames Gotham City for worrying only about the rich but ignoring people like him.

The irony is that Arthur’s mother named him ‘Happy’ but it’s something he’s never really felt.

Is there a Joker in all of us?

Somewhere, each one of us connects with Joker on a deeper, darker level; maybe because of the madness that lurks within. We all hope to find that ‘mask’ to hide our real emotions, feelings, and thoughts. We all wish to do things our way, be an outlaw, abandon rules and not care about anything or anyone, just like Joker.

We watch Joker embrace his Shadow self; the dark side of his being. The “shadow” is a concept explained by Carl Jung that describes those aspects of the personality such as instincts, impulses, weaknesses, desires, perversions, and embarrassing fears that we choose to reject and repress. We all have parts of ourselves that we don’t like or that we think society won’t like, so we push those parts down into our unconscious.

“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”

Carl Jung, Aion (1951)

We relate to Joker’s ideology of how no one cares when something goes wrong with a ‘common’ person. But how havoc wreaks when anything happens to a powerful and influential person.

We notice Joker longing for recognition throughout, indeed a cry for help. His behaviour is an expression of desire for human contact and admiration. Which, if not received, leads to distress and mental suffering.

What is the relation between Mental illness and Crime?

A major issue at hand is that we, without giving it much thought, believe that most crimes are committed by mentally ill individuals. Violence and crime attract attention in the news and entertainment business. Not even for a second do we stop and ponder that maybe media sensationalizes acts of violence by mentally challenged people. We conveniently accept this to be true, ignoring the fact that most violence is caused by the general population. This further leads to the stigmatization of mental illnesses and results in discrimination, a sense of isolation and decreased treatment-seeking by the patients.

A very small number of individuals with serious mental illnesses commit crimes. Individuals who are not being treated commit almost all of these acts; many of them also under the influence of substance abuse.

A study in New York assessed 60 severely mentally ill men who had been charged with violent crimes. The author reported that medication non-compliance and lack of awareness of illness both played significant roles in causing the men’s violent behaviour.

There have been various studies to prove that treating people with serious mental illnesses significantly decreases episodes of violence.

People with mental illnesses are more likely to harm themselves - than they are to hurt other people.

How society affects Mental Health?

Imagine that an individual with a mental illness approached you. Then, think about how you would interact with such a person. Your first reaction might be to ignore them or completely corner them because of fear and society’s set standards for "such" people. We are innately taught to avoid people who are ‘different’ or ‘weird’ as people say. But how would that help in any way? We, as sentient beings, need to stop being indifferent to such matters and try to become more sensitive. It is essential to educate ourselves, be conscious of our language, show compassion, and simply be better human beings.

As outsiders, it is extremely important to notice the tell-tale signs in suffering individuals and understand the underpinnings of such behaviour. This could be their first step towards healing.

The movie depicts the scenario of today’s world where mental illnesses are hardly recognized and just brushed under the carpet. Just because people don’t have any ‘visible’ symptoms, they are conveniently ignored by the public as well as the government. Yes, we like to talk about it, but what do we do about it? Is anyone taking a step towards enabling society? Everyone is enraged while sitting at home, behind their computers, comfortably ‘advocating’ against the adversities. But we as a society need to get up, get out of our comfort zones and get rid of the stigma, taboo, and myths around mental health.

Helping people who have a severe mental illness is compassionate, and one of the most important long-term investments that our society can make.

We, as a society, need to engrave in our hearts that the world owes you nothing, but it costs nothing to be kind.

Top 15 quotes from Joker that bring the prevailing mental health issues to light

  1. ‘All I have are negative thoughts’ - Arthur Fleck

  2. ‘Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?’ - Arthur Fleck

  3. ‘I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s a comedy’ - Arthur Fleck

  4. ‘The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DONT’ - Arthur Fleck writes in his journal

  5. ‘I just hope my death makes more sense than my life.’ - From Arthur’s Journal

  6. ‘I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore.’ - Arthur Fleck

  7. ‘She always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She says I was put here to spread joy and laughter.’ - Arthur Fleck talking about his mother

  8. ‘I’m sorry. I have a condition.’ - Arthur while handing out a card explaining the condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably

  9. ‘It is certainly tense. People are upset, they’re struggling, looking for work. These are tough times. How about you? Have you been keeping up with your journal?’ - Social Worker to Arthur

  10. ‘Your boss also gave us one of your cards. This condition of yours, the laughing, is it real, or some sort of clown thing?’ - Detective Burke being insensitive about Arthur’s condition

  11. ‘You don’t listen, do you? I don’t think you ever really listened to me. You just ask the same questions every week. “How’s your job? Are you having any negative thoughts?” All I have are negative thoughts. But you don’t listen. Anyway, I said, for my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.’ - Arthur Fleck to the Social Worker

  12. ‘They cut our funding. They’re closing down our offices next week. The city’s cut funding across the board, social services is part of that. This is the last time we’ll be meeting. They don’t give a sht about people like you, Arthur. And they really don’t give a sht about people like me either.’ - Social Worker talking about funding for social services being cut by Gotham City

  13. 'For my whole life, I didn't know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.' - Joker

  14. ‘Sometimes, I don’t know what to do. The last time, I ended up taking it out on some people. I thought it was going to bother me, but it really hasn’t. I f**ked up. I’ve done some bad sh*t. And I’ve been thinking really hard about it. It’s so hard just to try and be happy all the time.’ - Arthur Fleck to Carl, the clerk at Arkhan State Hospital

  15. ‘What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?’ - Joker to Murray, just before shooting him in the face on live TV

The movie explains how mental trauma can impact someone’s life and how mental illness remains stigmatized, even in 2019. It shows how people just hear you, and not listen to you. Joker teaches us how important it is to express what we're going through, share our feelings, not keep things bottled up and to get support.

The idea is to acknowledge the plethora of emotions and feelings that we human beings have. These range from anger, hatred, jealousy to love, empathy, happiness and many others, that too on a day to day basis. It is high time we realized that humans are complex beings, capable of things not thought of, ever.

When you leave the theatre, you think nothing but how to solve this mental health epidemic. It’s there. It’s 100% happening, and not just in Gotham City, but all around us. It’s real, uncomfortable, awkward and something needs to be done to turn this situation around. You need to do something about it. What do you perceive the solution to this be?

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