The first full week in October is Mental Health Awareness Week. Fellow Geeks OUT! writer Amanda Malamut and I have picked six of our favorite queer characters who deal with mental illness, to remind us that our heroes can fight the battle in their minds, and still kick ass. And so can we. We're not alone, and existing with mental illness does not make someone less of a person. We're all valuable and important, despite the battles we face in our minds.
Now, the first question you may ask is why are there only six in this listicle? That's pretty puny. Well, sadly there aren't many queer geek characters in general, nor are there many characters who have mental illness. Furthermore, when we do see mental illness, it's usually in reference to antagonists (ex. Joker). This deepens the stereotype that mental illness is "bad." And that is not OK. Thankfully, there are some characters out there that the queer community can identify with, that can help us learn coping skills and how to reach out when we want help.
Madame Vastra is very open about who she is and how other people perceive her: "I wear a veil to keep from view what many are pleased to call my disfigurement. I do not wear it as a courtesy to such people, but as a judgement on the quality of their hearts." She embraces what others see as wrong or odd and she marries a woman who treats her like she treats herself. She refuses to let mockery or scorn affect who she is as a person and what she does to try to make the world a better place. By accepting that she has no control on other people's actions or reactions, she shows that our mental health issues is something to own, despite what society dictates.
Witches of East End
Jo is one of the strongest witches I've ever seen or read about. She's bisexual, hundreds of years old, and has endured a curse of watching her two daughters die over and over before they reach 30 years old. Then she immediately becomes pregnant to raise them again, but her daughters always come back with slightly different personalities. Sometimes mental illness can come out of nowhere, and sometimes it follows a crippling traumatic event. In season 2 episode 8, Joanna, and her sister Wendy, find both young women have been murdered. They have died, again, and Joanna's heart seems to shatter irreparably. Joanna drifts in a fog, preparing their bodies, saying her last goodbye. She simply cannot endure it any longer. The darkness of depression envelopes her to a point where are all she can experience is her pain, and feel the loss of her sweet, strong, beautiful daughters. In this darkness, she tries to commit suicide, but her sister Wendy finds her just in time and helps her recover. Wendy reminds her that she's important, and she isn't alone in her grief.
The idea of nature vs. nurture is weaved into the plot of Orphan Black. There is a transgender clone, a lesbian clone, and a possibly bisexual clone. Yet the rest of them appear to be cisgender and heterosexual. Along with sexuality and gender identity, mental health is also debated in the nature/nurture dichotomy. "Well, yeah, bad brain chemistry can be genetic, but environment... that's individual, right? I mean, that's the whole nature/nurture question right there." All of the clones are relatable in one way or another, but Cosima has a way of opening up a dialogue about how physical illness can take a mental toll. While trying to cure herself and her sisters, Cosima constantly faces illness, stress, and grief. She hits her breaking point multiple times but still is able to pick herself up another time.
Jade Street Protection Services
Emma is autistic. She never talks. She feels isolated and alone, but she just can't help it. Her high school classmates talk at her, or behind her back, like she's a weirdo. At least until they all get detention and go on their first adventure together—which involves skipping detention. One classmate, Noemi, sticks up for her, and a friendship is sparked. Emma expresses her gratitude through a text. Noemi doesn't make fun of her, or ask her why she can't just talk. She respects that texting is more comfortable for Emma, and this respect is essential. Heaven forbid some people have different ways of communicating, especially to a point where talking to people is absolutely terrifying. We should all be more sensitive to how others feel is the best way for them to communicate.
Adventure Time discusses mental health issues in a way that is accessible and digestible to children and adults alike. The show discusses depression, anxiety, loss, and everything in between. Princess Bubblegum is an integral part of the mental health discussion. In Bonnie and Neddy she talks about how her brother is different and that’s okay: "People get built different. We don’t need to figure it out, we just need to respect it. Maybe he likes his company more than I like mine." In Varmints she confesses to Marceline that she has been feeling stressed and depressed, shutting the world out: "I tried. I really, really tried. I just—I thought that if I shut everything out and just focused on work, it will all be OK. And look what that landed me. All I managed to do was to push everyone away. I pushed you away. I'm sorry, Marceline. I've been a real dinger to you.” Princess Bubblegum is blunt and honest about her issues, opening up a discussion around the problems she is facing.
While Wolverine is not queer, no one can argue that queers have identified with the X-Men because they resonate with the way that the X-Men are part of marginalized society. Wolverine has an incredibly troubled past. We'll focus on the movie series, with Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. He was in many wars, and lost his wife after she betrayed him. PTSD makes him relive many traumatic events through flashbacks and night terrors. He wakes up with his bed slashed to shreds because his claws come out during these nightmares, and once he thrust his claws right into Rogue's stomach. If she didn't grab his forearms and steal his regenerative powers, he would have killed her. Sometimes our pain can affect others, but it's important to know that we need to give ourselves a break, and surround ourselves with people like Rogue who have a capacity for forgiveness and unconditional support.
Having characters who deal with a mental illness and/or disorder makes it easier to end the stigma surrounding mental health and creates a space where we can start a discussion with our friends and families who might not understand what it means to have depression, anxiety, etc. Having queer characters who deal with these issues, gives the audience a unique representation to the queer community. It's easier to relate to characters who face struggles that we face. These issues may be dealt with differently than they are with cis het characters, and identifying with a hero or everyday person makes it easier for queer people to seek out the help we might need.
If you are struggling with mental illness, please reach out to a trusted individual or one of these resources:
The Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Issues in Counseling: offers a list of resources for LGBT individuals and works to educate counseling professionals on LGBT issues.
The Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists: offers numerous resources for LGBT people who are experiencing mental health conditions, including a directory of LGBT-friendly therapists.
The Center for American Progress: offers a variety of resources, including a report called Why the Gay and Transgender Population Experiences Higher Rates of Substance Use.
The GLBT National Help Center: provides multiple resources and access to a hotline and a youth chat line.
GLSEN: (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) provides an annual report called the National School Climate Survey, which reports on the experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in U.S. schools.
The Pride Institute: is an unlocked, LGBT-exclusive facility that offers a residential treatment program, including psychiatric care for depression, anxiety and other needs.
The Trevor Project: is a multimedia support network for LGBTQ youth providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention.