Cartoon Portrayals of Mental Illnesses and why it Matters

As a child I was always interested in stories. From a young age I picked up books and, although unable to read at first, I still enjoyed the pictures. From books I could narrate a story and get lost in their world. However that was not my only source of stories. Every day I would run home from school, throwing all of my bags on the stairwell to be picked up later, wash my hands, grab a snack from the cabinet, and sit down in front of the TV. Excited, I’d flip the channel to a cartoon like Tom and Jerry, Jackie Chan Adventures, and Teen Titans. Spending time watching the show and getting to know the character a little more after each episode, watching cartoons and animations had become something I enjoyed and talked about often.

To this day I still love to enjoy shows. With many new cartoons on the rise I couldn’t help but notice the differences between the old shows and the new. Many new cartoons are still very child oriented however now I can see there are hidden meanings and ideas that appeal to an older audience too. After watching episodes and talking with other fans of shows, one prevalent topic was the idea of representation of mental illnesses. Many were worried about the ways shows represented mental illnesses however it became more and more obvious that the creators of the shows are pushing to be more inclusive and teach those who do not understand mental illnesses symptoms and how to sympathize or handle people with them. In today’s culture there is a push for equality for everyone. The errors of older cartoons has become more visible and many see their portrayal as unethical. It is only fair to begin changing the way cartoons represent people with mental illnesses. These shows from the current generation stepped up to challenge the previously institutionalized distortion in cartoons of what a mental illness really is.

Although the portrayal of mental illnesses is getting better, some still think it may not be enough. Many have different standpoints on how this issue should be handled. An example would be some think that the older generation is the first that should change, not the younger. However changing the mindset of older generations is harder. As people grow older they gain experience and confidence in their opinions becoming less flexible in morals and lines of thought. This is why focusing on the younger generation is so important. Otto E Wahl, a clinical psychologist at The University of Hartford, touches on the importance of starting with children in his article, Children’s Views of Mental Illness: A Review of the Literature, saying that “it seems likely that these ideas and attitudes are acquired gradually over a lifetime and that their roots are established in childhood”. He backs this up saying, “Overall, students were more accepting of disabilities as they matured-with one exception, mental ill- ness. Third graders were found to be more accepting of mental illness than ninth graders or college students” (Wahl, “Children’s Views of Mental Illness”). Interestingly, this leads to the idea that a child’s perspective on subjects like mental illnesses isn’t set in stone. They develop a different picture of what they believe a mental illness is through the terms they learn and who they see fit under the category. This includes their perception initially of the mentally ill as “most commonly citing terms such as ‘retarded’ and ‘spastic’” showing that they “[have] some misunderstanding of mental illness” (Wahl, “Children’s Views of Mental Illness”) and lack completely accurate information.

If from an early age children are taught to be loving and accepting they will be more likely to grow up that way. Soaking up information to build their schema, children have very flexible minds and are more willing to listen. Heather Stuart, a professor at Queens University for community health and epidemiology, takes note of the potential that media has to help fix the stigma that those before them have placed on mental illnesses. She states that “only five stories out of 600 (0.8%) [news items] that offered readers perspectives from people who had been diagnosed with a mental disorder” and that their “perspectives have been seriously under-represented” (Stuart, “Media Portrayal of Mental Illness and its Treatments). However that is only looking at news media. Popular cartoons such as Steven Universe, by Rebecca Sugar, have gathered enough attention to merit nominations and awards all the while balancing a children’s show with positive messages including bringing awareness to mental illnesses and how those with them are complex individuals.

The Nickelodeon cartoon The Legend of Korra, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, revolves around the adventures of Korra as she works to master all four elements people are able to control. On her journey Korra is mortally poisoned by one of her enemies and survives with severe trauma (“The Legend Of Korra, Venom of the Red Lotus). The show creates a great representation of Post-Traumatic stress disorder through showing how anyone can acquire a mental illness, the effects of one, and the correct way to support a person struggling with one.

In a typical cartoon the good guys will ultimately win with little to no sign of distress even after defeat. They will get back up and overcome what is in front of them. However in The Legend of Korra that is not the case. Korra is poisoned with the intent to kill her but miraculously survives and wins. The show takes a twist from there and indicates something is wrong when Korra is recovering. She is weakened and is shown to not be able to function on her own (“The Legend of Korra, Venom of the Red Lotus). As a heroine viewers expect Korra to immediately bounce back stronger than ever however she doesn’t. She is instead shown to have limits like anyone else. Instead of being indestructible they show Korra suffering from trauma like how a normal person would have. Even though she is a special person with unique powers, Korra is shown to have weaknesses and able to be hurt. She is the least likely candidate to suffer from a mental illness by television standards and yet she does. The Legend of Korra displays how a mental illness is something that can be onset by anything and no one is immune to them. It shows how even the strongest of people can acquire one at any time.

The DSM V, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5, is a manual produced by the American Psychiatric Association to help psychiatrists and psychologists diagnose mental disorders. It describes the criteria for PTSD as an “individual directly experiencing [a] traumatic event”, causing “clinically significant distress or impairment in the individual’s social interactions, capacity to work or other important areas of functioning. It is not the physiological result of another medical condition, medication, drugs or alcohol.” Also describing some of the features of PTSD as re-experiencing memories of the traumatic event, a distorted sense of blame upon one’s self or others, a lack of interest for activity, and even sleep disturbances (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Korra shows symptoms over the course of multiple episodes. For many scenes after her victory, Korra is in a wheel chair. Her eyes have dark bags under them implying a lack of sleep. She is also shown to have lashed out many times at her caretakers and therapists. Eventually she gathers enough strength to support herself physically, however, the trauma stayed with her as she walks around seeing a hallucination of herself that violently assaults her or distracts her in the middle of a fight (“The Legend of Korra, Korra Alone). Everything the audience is able to see about Korra screams that something is wrong with her. She showed more signs of weakness and the need for help, acting in ways many would think of as strange and very different from who Korra truly is. However looking closer it becomes obvious she has PTSD and can’t let go of the trauma that almost killed her.

Although it is ultimately the hardest on the person with a mental illness, it doesn’t mean that they must recover alone. Instead of the typical hero falling down and quickly recovering, Korra must rely on others to function and the show portrays the way that friends and family ideally should interact. Korra’s parents stay with her day and night until she is ready to move and help her ease into therapy. In the meantime Korra develops a closer relationship with a comrade who fought alongside her many times: Asami. Throughout the recovery process Korra and Asami exchange letters. Although very busy managing her own life, Asami comes and helps Korra through being understanding of her frustrations and fears and supporting her both physically and emotionally (“The Legend of Korra”, After All These Years). These scenes demonstrate the importance of relationships for someone suffering from a mental illness and gives insight about the reality that a mental illness cannot be solved alone.

So although the skepticism of the lack of portrayal of mental illnesses in media may be merited, it does not mean those who are trying have done a bad job. For the most part many shows and cartoons are overshadowed by more popular shows that have already grown in reputation and don’t touch on the subject of mental illnesses or portray characters with them as antagonists or lesser characters. In order to improve upon this, Otto E Wahl notes that the American school system has been attempting to remedy children’s perception however we still do not understand a child’s attitude towards mental illnesses. In order to create a much easier transition to a positive environment, many have taken the initiative with cartoons. The audience is mostly children to teenagers, however appeals to many other demographics through the story and morals. Shows like The Legend of Korra teach children about mental illnesses in a much less complex situation while synthesizing a plot that furthers character development and the show’s depth. Through the  reformation of cartoons the hope for a more fair and equal society will take a step forward as mentally ill people can achieve the same as anyone else but live with different assets that create a unique culture and lifestyle.



Works Cited

“After All These Years.” The Legend of Korra. Nickelodeon. NICK. Burbank. Joaquim Dos Santos, Ki Hyun Ryu, Colin Heck, Ian Graham, Melchior Zwyer. Television.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders . In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

“Korra Alone.” The Legend of Korra. Nickelodeon. NICK. Burbank. Joaquim Dos Santos, Ki Hyun Ryu, Colin Heck, Ian Graham, Melchior Zwyer. Television.

“The Last Stand.” The Legend of Korra. Nickelodeon. NICK. Burbank. Joaquim Dos Santos, Ki Hyun Ryu, Colin Heck, Ian Graham, Melchior Zwyer. Television.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Nebraska Department of Verterans’ Affairs, 2007. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Stuart, Heather. “Media Portrayal of Mental Illness and Its Treatments.”Springer Link. Springer International Publishing AG, Part of Springer Science+Business Media, 29 Aug. 2012. Web. 02 Nov. 2015.

Wahl, Otto E. “Children’s Views of Mental Illness: A Review of the Literature.”Taylor & Francis Online. Taylor & Francis Online, 18 Jan. 2011. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

“Venom of the Red Lotus.” The Legend of Korra. Nickelodeon. NICK. Burbank. Joaquim Dos Santos, Ki Hyun Ryu, Colin Heck, Ian Graham, Melchior Zwyer. Television.

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