Way back in 1962, Ken Kesey published One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Over ten years later, it was adapted into a movie by the same name. One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t in our wheelhouse, but its portrayal of mental hospitals is certainly worth mentioning. Both the novel and the movie came out at a time when mental hospitals had a lot more problems than they do now, especially in terms of how patients are treated and handled. As such, the story ended up being a social commentary on those institutions at the time.
This is a marvelous thing, as there were certainly issues that needed to be addressed. And while I wouldn’t give One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest all the credit for addressing those issues, thankfully nowadays, mental hospitals are a lot better than they used to be. That’s not to say that they don’t still have problems, because they do. Unfortunately, when we see mental institutions represented in pop culture today, those problems are highlighted to an unusual degree, normally to turn mental hospitals into a thing of horror.
This does a great disservice to both the people who actually need help and the people who genuinely want to help them. When we constantly present mental hospitals as horrible places designed to harm patients under the false pretense of actual psychiatric care and further demonize the staff who work there, people with actual mental disorders who need help are less likely to seek out that help. We internalize the messages that popular culture teaches us, regardless of whether or not they’re true—and one of those messages is unfortunately that mental hospitals are horrible places that should be avoided at all costs.
This really came to my attention during the Teen Wolf episode “Echo House”, which took place almost entirely inside a mental hospital, and after reading Lady Geek Girl’s post on Batman and the portrayal of mental illnesses. Both Teen Wolf and Batman do an incredibly poor job when it comes to this subject, as they both attempt to demonize mental hospitals. For starters, “Echo House” was the first Teen Wolf episode to have a content warning:
We would like to take this time to warn everyone that tonight’s episode will feature some potentially triggering content such as suicide, abuse, self-medication and mental health; just to name a few. We strongly advise that anyone who may find any of this content triggering or harmful avoid the “Echo House” tag on Tumblr.
Stiles admits himself to the hospital, and once there he witnesses a suicide and is pretty much exposed to every horrible cliché imaginable. It’s bad enough that this hospital’s interior design and lighting seem to be made for the sole purpose of being unsettling and creepy, but the staff is more or less uninterested and uncaring toward the patients as well—the one orderly is downright abusive and takes sadistic pleasure in harming them, while other orderlies look on. Even without the abuse, the staff’s methods are questionable. For instance, on Stiles’s first night at the hospital, he is led to a room and told to go to sleep willingly or else he’d be restrained to his bed, like his roommate. (This threat is not followed through on when Stiles refuses to sleep.) The orderly then locks Stiles in the room and leaves, refusing to open the door when Stiles asks to be let out. At that point in time, Stiles had admitted himself to the facility because he thought he was dangerous to himself and other people. The staff’s response was to lock him in a room, where another human being was tied helplessly to a bed, and further decide to not provide any kind of supervision on his first night.
Unfortunately, this hospital is nothing compared to Arkham Asylum. I think we can all agree that Arkham Asylum is a shitty place to be. It’s apparently such a bad hospital that insanity has somehow become contagious in its walls. Both Amadeus Arkham, the founder of Arkham Asylum, and his son, Jeramiah Arkham, were driven mad while working there. Jonathan Crane and Harley Quinn are also two former doctors turned inmates as well. Additionally, Arkham keeps its patients in horrible conditions—at any point in time, the hospital looks dirty and falling apart—and the staff actively abuses them as well.
Bruce Wayne is one of Arkham’s more generous benefactors, but the money he donates never seems to make a difference in the lives of the patients. It’s implied in the comics that the staff simply pockets the money for themselves, or that Bruce doesn’t even care how the patients are treated so long as they stop escaping. It’s actually surprising that Arkham has not lost custody of the people committed there. What makes this all the worse is that, not only is this done to make Arkham a place of horror, we as the audience are not necessarily meant to disagree with how it treats its patients.
Thankfully, some versions of Batman do a better job handling this issue, such as the episode “Lock Up” in Batman: The Animated Series, which is explicitly about abuse against some of Batman’s criminals—Harley, Scarecrow, the Ventriloquist—and goes to show that it is inexcusable. However, that cannot be said for most versions of Batman. Many of its live-action movies, animated features, video games, and comics still present Arkham Asylum as a clichéd house of horror that actively abuses its own patients. And because we are not meant to disagree with this, not only does Batman enforce the archaic idea that mental hospitals are horrible places, it also encourages violence toward people who may have mental disorders.
Sadly, our misconceptions about mental hospitals run so deep that even stories that don’t actively attempt to demonize them still end up doing so. The character Niki from Heroes, for instance, ends up committed to a mental hospital, and once there, she is left for hours on end in a straitjacket. Hospitals cannot leave patients in straitjackets for that long, because the position a straitjacket forces a person’s arms into interrupts blood flow. Blood tends to pool around the elbows, causing the person in question great pain, which is counteractive to care.
Traditionally, straitjackets are used to pacify violent patients who are dangerous to themselves and others. However, Niki was locked up in a padded room and did not display overly violent tendencies for the majority of her stay, making the straitjacket pointless. This is something the writers would have known about with just a little bit of research.
Though there are still problems in mental hospitals today—yes, abuse still happens—that certainly need to be addressed, it is not to the extent that popular culture makes it out to be. Our narratives normalize this abuse for us, to the point that we stigmatize all mental hospitals as being terrible places incapable of helping their patients. As such, the people out there who do need help—and there are a lot of them—don’t seek out that help and suffer as a result. Rather than using mental hospitals over and over again as a horror trope, it would be nice to see them represented in a more positive light and as institutions that actually care about the health and wellbeing of their patients.
What makes this trope even worse is that sometimes these narratives are not even about people with mental disorders, which I’ll talk about next time. Until then.