Joker highlights the truth: poverty worsens mental illness

Not many films hold my attention. Half-way through I’ll have restless legs and a drifting mind. Right up until the closing scene of Joker, I couldn’t look away or think of anything else. It has its spine-chilling moments its, cover-your-eyes moments, and a hauntingly dark take on the reality of mental health services and the treatment of those who deviate from the “norm”, whatever that is. 

The film is undeniably incredibly mastered and has you gripped from start to finish. With World Mental Health Day having just slipped through our hands, it’s the topic on the tip of all our tongues. 

I am in two minds about Joker and its impact on the world of mental health. 

Firstly, there are instances that I applaud the movie for how it deals with the reality of mental health sufferers. They are misunderstood, mistreated, forgotten about, abandoned. We speak out, as you asked us to, and we are talked over. We speak out, as you asked us to, and you close your ears to what you don’t want to hear. 

Despite Joker’s downward spiral, the inherent deep sympathy you feel for him at the start of the film is difficult to shake. It seeps into your bones and sets up home there. He is beaten, both mentally and physically, by those around him, simply for suffering from a mental illness. He begins as a struggling man, who does his best to hold onto a job, to care for his mother, to lead a normal life. I found the beginning of the film particularly difficult to watch – for example, when he was told he would no longer have counselling provided. It took me back to when I sat in the soft chair of my Therapist’s room, head in my hands, trying to beg myself not to cry as she told me she couldn’t provide me with any more therapy on the NHS anymore – my time was up. I was on a downward spiral for weeks afterwards, charged with suicidal thoughts and emptiness; I felt abandoned by society, by the world, by everything. There are parts of this film that felt like barbed-wire around my throat, they felt so real. 

Joker highlights a not-so-often talked about fact: Poverty worsens mental illness.

I could not afford private therapy. I still cannot afford private therapy. Therefore, I struggle alone. Tears stung the corners of my eyes and threatened to spill over watching the Joker try to hold down a job, gripping onto the remnants of a normal life by his fingertips with everything against him. Despite being beaten senseless, despite being laughed at, mocked, bullied, he continues to try until he is literally abandoned by every last thing he had that was there to manage his health. Seeing the bones in his back threaten to pierce his skin they were so sharp as he tied his shoes turned my stomach; mental illness is forcing yourself to eat when every mouthful feels as futile as the last. 

These parts of the Joker depict mental illness in a raw, real, unfiltered way. 

The part that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth is the continued depiction of those with mental illnesses as being violent, as being murderers. The Joker asked, before his final murder: What do you get when you mix a mentally ill loner with a society who abandons him and treats him like trash?

Do you know what you usually get? You get self-harm. You get suicide. You get abuse of the mentally ill person. Did you know that the average mentally ill person is going to be subject to self-harm or violence?

I have struggled with mental illness for years. I have been hit by previous partners. I have been hit by friends. I have been emotionally abused and manipulated. Do you know what I have never done? Laid my hand on another human being out of violence. 

Joaquin Phoenix is an undeniably fantastic actor and this incredible film will sit with me for a long time, but please don’t walk away from this film believing that mentally ill people, left unheard, will become the perpetrators of violence. They are often on the receiving end. Walk away seeing the continued abandonment of the mentally ill and the isolated path they are forced to walk – take that from this film. Reach out to a friend who is mentally ill, ask them what the reality is. Mentally ill people are not their illness, mentally ill people are not inherently violent. Mentally ill people are victims.

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If you need help with your mental health, please don’t stay quiet. You are not alone. Here are some charities you can contact for immediate support:

  1. Student Minds
  2. Samaritans
  3. Mind

You can also reach out to your university’s mental health and student support services. Many universities offer free professional counselling and can liaise with your faculty to ensure your tutors and lecturers are kept in the loop.

Your GP is also a great person to talk to – they might be able to diagnose you and prescribe medication to help ease your symptoms, and then refer you to a therapist.

If all of this sounds a bit overwhelming, talk to a friend, family member, housemate, coursemate, teammate, society friend, tutor… the list of people who care and will listen to you is endless.

Image: Joker; Warner Bros. Pictures

Amy Smith

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