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Visiting professor analyzes mental illness in comics

Visiting professor analyzes mental illness in comics

Elizabeth Donaldson led a talk on Thursday, April 18, where she contrasted the connection between psychosis and violence in traditional comics with the representation of mental illness in modern publications. // Photo courtesy of Annemarie LePard

Through a discussion centered around psychographics, graphic memoirs and underrepresented psychiatric disabilities, Elizabeth Donaldson, professor of English and director of the Medical Humanities Program at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) contrasted the connection between psychosis and violence in traditional superhero comics with the representation of mental illness in more contemporary publications.

“Even though the comics genre as a whole, including works about mental illness, may be flourishing, comics, graphic novels and memoirs that focus specifically on schizophrenia are still few and far between,” Donaldson said.

The talk, held on Thursday, April 18, was given at the Leo A. Guthart Cultural Center Theater and was presented by the Hofstra Cultural Center in collaboration with the Disability Studies Program.

According to Donaldson, schizophrenia is a “chronic and debilitating illness that is associated with psychotic thinking, hallucinations – especially auditory hallucinations or hearing voices – delusions and other cognitive affected impairments.”

Donaldson argued that schizophrenia is the “most integrated, feared and maligned of all mental illness identity categories” and is rarely talked about.

These subjects of mental health fall close to home for Donaldson.

“I am someone who has experienced periods of severe major depression and I have two members of my immediate family diagnosed with schizophrenia,” she said. “Talking about schizophrenia is necessary precisely because it is so complex and stigmatized, [and talking about] it focuses needed attention on a misunderstood disability.”

The discussion focused on three components: the common linkage between criminality and psychosis; the experience of mental illness as a foundational and integral part of the genre of graphic memoir and autobiographical comics; and finally, on biographical writing about schizophrenia and psychosis.

Donaldson cited the Batman franchise as an example to explain how mental illness and criminality are often linked together. She referred to the stereotyped physicians and inmates of the Arkham Asylum as extreme examples of the idea of ascribing mental illness to violent acts.

However, in general, “people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence,” Donaldson said.

“I never realized the stigma that comes along with criminology and mental illness and how that leads to society’s perception and judgement of people,” said Kenrick Dessin, a freshman neuroscience major.

Donaldson mentioned an important work that deals with schizophrenia in order to dismantle the stereotypical association of mental illness and violence.

“‘Echoes’ [by Joshua Hale Fialkov], is a powerful two-pronged attack against stigma,” Donaldson said. “It combines elements of contemporary graphic memoirs and a first person account of living with schizophrenia with more traditional, generic conventions of superhero comics.”

Autobiographical comics about schizophrenia, similar to the story in “Echoes,” are difficult to find.

“They are more likely to be authored by family members than by people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia,” Donaldson said.

She reiterated how shameful it is to have a lack of graphic texts on schizophrenia because of the “medium’s potential to change public perceptions of mental illness.”

For many students, Donaldson’s discussion brought attention to these critical issues and stirred a sense of responsibility to take action.

“I never realized there are limited books that discuss mental illness, especially in graphic novels,” said Emma DeSimone, a sophomore journalism and political science major. “Mental illness is a topic we should be talking about, and we aren’t.”

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