I have the good fortune of living in San Diego County, the home of Comic-Con. I didn’t manage to grab tickets for the main event, but there were plenty of things to see outside of the convention center. Last week, I attended a panel featuring several “nerdy” authors (Alan Kistler, Dr. Travis Langley, Jonathan Maberry, Dr. Billy San Juan, Dr. Janina Scarlet, and Dr. Lynn Zubernis).
I had two reasons for attending this particular panel. First, I wanted to get my copy of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight signed by Dr. Travis Langley (a book that will be the focus of a future blog post!). Second, I wanted to hear the perspectives of these authors, many of whom are also clinical psychologists. They were in a unique position to discuss why pop culture is relevant when addressing mental health issues and engaging in the healing process of therapy.
Disclaimer: This blog post briefly discusses sexual violence and may be triggering for some readers.
Talking about depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction, and other mental health issues can be extremely challenging. Stigma is a huge barrier to seeking help, but when pop culture acknowledges these issues in a productive way, they become easier to talk about.
One of the authors referenced Jessica Jones, a superhero from the Marvel Universe and main character in a Netflix TV show. Jessica Jones experiences many hardships, including the death of her parents in a car accident, as well as rape and psychological manipulation by supervillain Kilgrave. As a result, Jessica Jones develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and engages in heavy alcohol use to cope with the emotional pain.
Keep in mind that this character existed prior to the #MeToo movement, which more broadly opened the door to discuss concerns about sexual harassment and assault. When pop culture references like Jessica Jones are linked to real-life mental health issues, it can pave the way for connecting with mental health professionals, support groups, and other resources.
Let’s face it: coming to therapy and talking about mental health issues isn’t easy. I’ve been on the other side of the couch, so I know that it can be daunting to share details about your personal life with a complete stranger (even though you know their goal is to help you).
One of the authors (who is also a clinical psychologist) shared an experience they had with a client. During the assessment process, they learned their client was an English major. Some mental health professionals might have gathered this information and moved on to the next part of their evaluation; however, this psychologist made a point of finding out what their client’s favorite book was. This led to a rich discussion about the Harry Potter series and how it could be applied to the therapeutic process.
The rapport (or connection) between a client and their therapist is regarded as one of the most important variables for a successful outcome. Pop culture references can help reduce anxiety during those initial therapy sessions and make room for enriching conversations, as well as creative and meaningful interventions!
Combating mental health issues may feel hopeless at times, and a person may not believe they have the strength to fight everything that’s going on in their lives. When someone is struggling with a severe episode of depression, simply getting out of bed can be an accomplishment.
One of the authors provided an example of a young client who discovered Black Panther, another superhero from the Marvel Universe. This client was struggling with the loss of their father, and upon learning Black Panther had also lost their father, they no longer felt as powerless in their grieving process. They could see how Black Panther overcame numerous challenges and became even stronger as a result.
Many pop culture characters experience the same real-life struggles that we do. When we see them find ways to adapt and grow, we can be inspired to seek out our own strengths and coping strategies as well.
A common misconception about therapy is that it involves talking about mental health issues, and nothing else. In reality, therapists provide education about mental health issues and assist clients with learning and practicing skills (for coping, socializing, etc.) that are designed to improve those issues in some way.
Over the past couple of months, I have received a number of referrals for young clients who struggle with anger management. Their parents are rightfully concerned about explosive temper tantrums, and nothing they’ve said or done has seemed to make an impact. One of the first things I do is use pop culture references like The Hulk to educate these clients about the triggers for anger, as well as the potential consequences. Once my clients understand why anger management is so important, we can focus on developing the skills needed to manage those feelings of anger.
As one of the authors stated, using pop culture references can help people understand concepts more quickly. Psychological terminology and mental health jargon can be difficult to comprehend, but citing characters from TV shows, movies, books, comics, games, and other “nerdy” sources can cut down on time spent explaining these concepts.