WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Jacob Black, 24, says he’s suffered from severe anxiety most of his life, but it wasn’t until 2017 that his mental health and well-being took a turn for the worse. His anxiety coupled with chronic depression left him existing in a dark space, battling overwhelming sensations of sadness, fear and exhaustion.
“It’s this constant fight between feeling useless, between being afraid of everything, and honestly hating myself, hating everything about me,” Black told Circa.
These issues — mental illness, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — are the latest topics explored through the perspective of superheroes in DC Comics’ latest miniseries “Heroes in Crisis.” At the core of the narrative lies the Sanctuary, a secretive space where superheroes, including Wonder Woman, Flash, Batman and Superman, seek mental health treatment after enduring violence as part of their mission to eradicate evil from the world. The conflict unravels when the Sanctuary — a supposed “safe” medical facility — is under attack.
In many ways, author and ex-CIA operations officer Tom King redefines the superhero mythos page by page, exposing the anxieties and vulnerabilities of characters who, historically, have been portrayed one-dimensionally — as “invincible.”
“People need to see that a character like Superman, who’s inspiring us to be better, also struggles,” said Black, an avid comic book reader. “It stops these characters from being gods and still keeps them inspiring because they’ve overcome these issues. And it’s kind of that feeling of, ‘Well, maybe, I can do that, maybe I can overcome this, maybe I can go forward, maybe I can better myself, maybe I can find out how to be happy.'”
Dr. Katherine Marshall Woods, an adjunct professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University, says she agrees. Black is just one of 9.8 million people who suffer from a mental illness so debilitating it interferes with daily activities, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health.
“I do feel like it’s extremely useful to show these superheroes who apparently can face anything in the world, and the most challenges, still will have symptoms of mental health concerns based upon all of the traumas of which they’re exposed,” she said. “It provides us with an understanding that anyone can actually be evoked with symptoms of PTSD and any mental health — that we are all susceptible of specific symptoms based upon what experiences we’ve had.”
The mental illnesses covered in the beginning issues of “Heroes in Crisis” run the gamut. The cast of characters comes to represent the diversity of the mental health spectrum. You’ll find characters like Arsenal suffering from drug addiction, Superman dealing with an identity crisis and Wonder Woman undervaluing her own self worth. These character vulnerabilities are exposed throughout intimate nine-panel pages, which make the reader feel, Marshall Woods says, as though they’re participating in a one-on-one therapy session with a superhero.
For Black, it’s usually all eyes on Batman. But in “Heroes in Crisis,” he says Wonder Woman’s testimony particularly resonated.
“What I found really interesting about Woman Woman was her problem is that she gives too much of herself because she genuinely believes that everyone, everyone, is worse off than she is. That no matter how she feels, no matter what bad things she goes through, there is someone else who is suffering more.”
Black explained that he had a difficult time coming to terms with his deteriorating mental health because he wasn’t that combat soldier returning from war, or even that student who witnessed gun violence at school. Those individuals, in his eyes, were worthy of being diagnosed with mental illness. He, the average American, wasn’t.
“It was this very powerful moment for me, to see this character that I adore — I love Wonder Woman — to admit that she has a very relatable anxiety that I have: this idea that my pain doesn’t matter — or, it’s not as bad as everybody else’s — which is not fair to me, and it’s not fair to her.”
Seventy percent of people with mental illness do not receive any treatment, according to a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. And some researchers suggest stigma plays an influential role in preventing patients from seeking care.
Despite the author’s intent, some fans were left disappointed, saying the underlying theme was lost to murder mystery fanfare.
But for Marshall Woods, whose research specializes in the intersection of psychology and the media, it was the Sanctuary’s “unsafe” depiction that sprouted concern. Inferences that mental health facilities aren’t secure places to seek treatment “don’t necessarily support the continued development of mental health,” she said.
“That may inhibit individuals from actually wanting to seek treatment, or feeling safe to do so,” Marshall Woods continued.
Black, who plans on reading the remaining six issues of “Heroes in Crisis,” admits that, while he’s doing much better than those dark days of 2017, there still remain millions of people who suffer from mental illnesses. Even more reason, he says, to discuss these serious issues in a public setting.
“These conversations, these triumphs over trauma and depression, they are becoming more and more frequent in the comics for other characters, and I really do think that’s going to continue.”