Misappropriation leads to misunderstanding and mistreatment. We turn to comics to figure out what helpful representations of mental ill-health look like.
As part of our ongoing Mental Health Awareness coverage this month, we’re writing a series of articles on how mental illness has been misappropriated in comics. This article is from Ink issue #9, and you can read the next article, on psychopathy, here.
At some point in the style cycles of the last thirteen years, high street fast-fashion stores decided to appropriate the dark and uncomfortable clothes that fifteen-year-olds used to pick up in edgy markets like Camden Lock. Overpriced and cheaply made, the faux-grunge sweatshirts are shapeless and stiff enough to hide any evidence of the human underneath, but spew forth self-expressive cliches across the bosom like lines of a diary written to be read.
One that Topshop is selling at the moment is completely black, round necked with a delicate off-centre note on the front that reads “Cute but psycho” in a white handwritten font. At a measly £32 – almost eight hours work, or a full Saturday shift, for a teenager working at minimum wage – this product’s off-kilter value-for-money ratio is the least of its worries.
The term “psycho” hasn’t always been a shorthand for psychopathy. In 1925 it was used as a pet term for a psychologist. It’s Raymond Chandler that gets credit for first slicing the end off of ‘psychopathic’ in his 1936 story The Man Who Liked Dogs, assigning the word to a murder case and setting the trend for identifying a cause behind “crazed” killers for all the decades of pop culture to come.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, the emphasis is on flourishing from good mental health rather than just surviving the bad. But if people can’t distinguish between a character trait and a genuine medical concern then it’s going to be difficult to achieve that goal. Common vernacular has abused several psychological terms in this way, trivialising complicated conditions like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, and generalising and often gendering pejoratives like “crazy” and all its iterations.
Issues of the English language evolving in this way result in more than hurt feelings, although hurt feelings when your whole self feels like one giant nerve ending deserve more than just a shrug on their own. Misappropriating a term such as OCD to the extent where it’s used on a daily basis for a laugh over someone’s particular habits leads to misunderstanding of the disorder and therefore mistreatment of people who are living with its very real symptoms. Compounding this is that co-opting medical terms for description of daily life so rarely happens with physical conditions that it furthers the divide between physical and mental healthcare, resulting in less funding and ultimately less treatment options for the people who are, on average, already waiting up to 10 years for a diagnosis.
How can we begin to solve these problems of language and expression without compromising people’s right to free speech and isolating sufferers and survivors? Could it be the all-healing Wolverine DNA that is comics?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Probably the most casually misused mental health term, and one of the least understood conditions, OCD can vary greatly in how it manifests within each sufferer. Rather than the simple desire to keep the kitchen disinfected, or the pleasure fulfilment of alphabetising anything that has letters printed on it, this takes shape through obsessions – intrusive thoughts – and compulsions – ritual actions that must be performed to reduce anxiety.
Glyn Dillon’s 2012 book The Nao of Brown attempts to explain primarily-obsessive OCD through its protagonist Nao as she learns to manage her condition and balance the areas of her life that make her who she wants to be.
We meet Nao at something of a transition period. Returning to London from a trip to visit her father in Japan, she is struggling in her career as a freelance illustrator so gets a job in her friend’s shop selling Japanese “kidult” toys and memorabilia. There she meets the washing machine repairman Gregory with whom she hopes she can find perfect love. Her dual nationality leads her to notice that people observe her as “exotic” and works as a physical representation for that dissonance between who she’s seen as and who she is.
Nao pays particular attention to her appearance, with a preferred colour palette of black, white, and a bold letterbox red that ties her to both the landmarks of London and the good fortune and life it expresses in Japanese art and culture. She is stylish in a deliberately cute way that presents the antithesis of murderous thoughts that intrude on her brainwaves and make her feel shameful, terrible, and out of control.
It’s difficult to represent mental ill-health in narrative, not because of its internal nature, but because it doesn’t usually present itself in a helpful arc that can be neatly used for story purposes. OCD is a lifelong condition. There can be no real closure for Nao about this aspect of her life because it’s always going to be there. The ending of this book, in which Nao’s relationship with her OCD is the main plot, largely fails for this reason; forcing its protagonist to conclude that her perspective is what’s causing her building inner tension is unhelpful because, presented as a conclusion, it suggests a tidy resolution to a solvable problem.
The mindful thinking that Nao develops from her Buddhist meditation classes can be a successful treatment option, and its presence in her story holds as much realism as the specifics of her condition. That is, they are specific to her. The book is open to criticism about its reasoning that Nao’s real problem is her self-indulgence over her OCD.
Obsessive compulsive symptoms are linked to depression, which is in itself a very self-absorbing condition. It can be impossible to see the wood for the trees when that wood is in a cold, dark hell. In this sense, Nao’s recovery from the worst of her obsessive thoughts is reasonable and she manages to get out of her head for a time, which is an undisputed achievement. Unfortunately, she only comes to the realisation that there is a world outside her head through external overly-plotted forces and crappy men.
The criteria for an official diagnosis of OCD, as dictated by the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition), include the presentation of obsessions and compulsions that impact daily life, causing distress and ritualistic behaviours that take up more than one hour of the day. While it has its own problems, The Nao of Brown is a much better representation of this than the likes of Channel Four’s Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners.