In Brightest Day: Mental Hospitals and Abuse in Pop Culture

batman-arkham-asylum-courtyardWay 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.

Pictured: Stiles being restrained for something another patient did.

Pictured: Stiles being restrained for something another patient did.

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.

Arkham Asylum CellblockBruce 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.

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About MadameAce

I draw, I write, I paint, and I read. I used to be really into anime and manga until college, where I fell out of a lot of my fandoms to pursue my studies. College was also the time I discovered my asexuality, and I have been fascinated by different sexualities ever since. I grew up in various parts of the world, and I've met my fair share of experiences and cultures along the way. Sure, I'm a bit socially awkward and not the easiest person to get along with, but I do hold great passion for my interests, and I can only hope that the things I have to talk about interest you as well.

8 thoughts on “In Brightest Day: Mental Hospitals and Abuse in Pop Culture

  1. I find the Nikki example you brought up really interesting as I had never thought, before, that Heroes was yet another piece of fictional media that was perpetuating bad stereotypes about mental hospitals. But you’re so right.

    It’s interesting that both Niki and Stiles choose to get themselves committed voluntarily in these worlds, yet still the mental hospitals are made out to be horrific.

    What do people think about the portrayal of the mental hospital in the 2-hour season 6 premiere of House? I felt like they tried to be realistic and more fair in that episode, but… I’m not sure. It’s also been a little while since I’ve seen it.

    I remember Chuck in Chuck getting dragged off to a specific CIA psychiatric facility in 3×16 “Chuck Versus the Tooth” and it’s one of those “I’m not actually mentally ill at all and this is my worst nightmare come true” scenarios.

    Actually Skins UK, which usually is good about things including how it treated Cassie’s anorexia in season 1 complete with how they handled her psychiatrist… had a mental hospital in season 4 and they perpetuated the stereotype of mental hospitals being the scariest place on Earth in an unusual and interesting way. Not sure why they chose to go this route, but Effy who was suffering from psychotic depression and hallucinating and attempted suicide was brainwashed by her psychiatrist into forgetting who she was, into not remembering any of her memories really, and then that psychiatrist ended up murdering her boyfriend. It was creepy as hell. And very different than the typical “mental hosptials are scary” thing because yes, while this psychiatrist murderer worked at the hospital and yes Effy met him there, the hospital itself seemed okay. It was just the one guy who was horrifying. But still… it leaves the impression that getting committed to a mental health facility after suffering a psychotic break will end up with your worst nightmare coming true.

    There are just so many of these things in the media and it is disheartening.

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  3. One thing you’d never get from watching TV/movies, is that it is actually _really_hard_ to get someone committed in an institution in the United States (which has both positives & negatives) From the media, you’d get the impression that just being accused of mental illness can get you committed. (And then it’s depicted as being terrible that they were treated that way because they are “innocent” sane people) Seriously mentally ill people in this country are more likely to be bounced from one poorly funded & run social service/shelter, public hospital, jail to the street and back again.

    • Great point, caelesti.

      This Wiki How article is well-done and kind of describes the process NEVER shown in TV shows.

      The way Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds committed his mother (Jane Lynch!) once he turned 18 was sweet and understandable in a fictional context, but in a realistic context made no sense. You can’t just get someone committed because you’re their 18-year-old son and you say it’s necessary. No, she has to be an immediate threat to herself or others. And on the show we saw no evidence of a suicide attempt. She was never in all 9 years of the show painted as a threat to others EXCEPT for the fact that she neglected her son due to being stuck in too deep of a depression to properly take care of him.


      Yeah my mother is someone I desperately wish I could get committed but until she actually seriously tries to kill herself or someone else, oh well, she’s on the path to homelessness because she can’t hold down a job (and she can’t hold down a job because of her mental health conditions). Her diagnosed mental health conditions do have attempted suicide and self-harm as common symptoms, but they’re not HER symptoms.

      (She has never sought treatment herself, never believed she had any reason to address her own mental health… she was only diagnosed during a heated custody trial between my parents when she and my dad were both forced into a psychiatric evaluation and also she was evaluated a bit by a general social worker and by child psychiatrists doing reunification counseling between her and my brother for a few weeks before deciding it was hopeless given my mother’s mental state. Oh and my mother strongly believes that all of these professionals are either liars or idiots, either manipulated by my father into making her seem crazy, or convinced by my apparently lying? father that she is crazy.)

      I do use the ableist term “crazy” on purpose because I believe my mother has used it in this context herself and I think the connotations of the word are hurting her/preventing her from seeking treatment. I think she’s utterly afraid of being crazy so instead of one outcome of internalizing ableist sentiments against “crazy people” (instead of feeling broken because of the stigma) she is in deep denial and refuses to consider the fact that it might be true (she distances herself as far as she can from the idea of being crazy).

      And there’s nothing anyone can do about it even when she IS a danger to others (because she’s falsely accusing my dad and her new boyfriend/fiance (now-ex, of course) of very serious crimes and lying under oath because she’s both delusional and manipulative and thinks she’s justified in lying since they’re pure evil in her head and that they deserve to go to prison). We honestly believe she’s hurting herself right now to try to get her ex-boyfriend/fiance convicted of assault. She’s not the “right kind of” danger to herself and others” though. It’s not exactly possible to “get someone committed” even when it makes sense, so much of the time.

      She was abusive to me and my brother growing up because of her personality disorders and yet the type of abuse she dished out was not the physical abuse kind 99% of the time, so if we had reported it to social services/told our doctors/teachers/trusted adults we were being abused/etc, they would have interviewed her then walked away, leaving us alone with an even more angry, abusive parent who would torment us to such a degree that we were terrified all the time of making her mad.

      • Whoa…that’s a little more than I needed to know, but I understand how hard it can be to find people to talk about these things! I’ve had many friends/relatives/acquaintances with mental health issues and have dealt with it myself, though not to an extreme. It is really annoying how only *physical abuse is taken seriously by “the authorities”. Other forms can be just as damaging.

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