The issue of mental health is one that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression ever since I was 11 and have recently been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I studied psychology for four years at university and, upon graduating, started work as a recovery worker for a mental health charity. So, with anime also being near and dear to my heart, I’m very interested in its portrayal of mental illness. Over the past few years I’ve noticed anime’s depiction of mental illness improve somewhat. A Silent Voice and Orange both depicted depression and suicidality in a sensitive way and it’s interesting to watch Okabe tackle what appears to be post traumatic stress disorder in this season’s Steins;Gate 0. However, to date anime’s depiction of mental illness has been largely insensitive or inaccurate.
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei makes light of depression and suicidality, with Despair-sensei trying to hang himself over every little inconvenience, and Soul Eater’s Death the Kid’s OCD is presented as a cute little quirk, something to make viewers laugh. I can kind of see the value of making light of such a sensitive subject – sometimes it makes me feel better to poke fun of my mental health problems, as opposed to dwelling on and letting myself feel miserable about them. Though I can also understand why some don’t like their conditions to be belittled. But I’m less willing to accept dangerous inaccuracies in the depiction of mental illness.
I recently finished watching the Kara no Kyoukai movie series. Shiki, its main character, has multiple personality disorder (MPD). Two distinct personalities, Shiki and SHIKI, reside within the one body. Shiki is the dominant personality. Through constantly suppressing (or, as she puts it, murdering) SHIKI, she has developed a murderous impulse that she spends the entire series fighting, with varied success. It is soon revealed that, towards the beginning of the series, Shiki was behind a string of grisly murders. This depiction of a person with MPD being a cold-blooded killer is not an isolated occurrence in anime. Toko, from the anime adaptation of the Danganronpa games, has a second personality who, when Toko blacks out, murders young men. And, perhaps even more famously, there’s Monster’s Johan Liebert, who also possesses an extremely dangerous, murderous personality. Admittedly, this theme isn’t exclusive to anime – see the movie, Split.
But this suggestion that MPD sufferers are all secretly serial killers is absolutely ridiculous. And whilst I’m sure that most people would agree with that, a large percentage of people still fear those with more serious mental health problems. As part of a fairly recent study carried out by Mind (a mental health charity), participants were given a list of descriptions and were asked to choose which they felt best described somebody with a mental illness. 33% of participants selected the phrase “prone to violence”. The propensity of the media, anime included, to perpetuate the idea that the mentally ill are more likely to be violent than the general population may go some way towards explaining this figure. And whilst, yes, a small proportion of mentally ill individuals are violent, comparative research (research that makes comparisons across different countries/cultures) has found that this group are actually four times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the general population (Hughes et al. 2012). Maniglio (2009) found even higher rates of victimisation among the mentally ill. He discovered that rates of non-violent and violent crime were two to 140 times higher than those among the general population (depending on the country examined). Sadly, these figures may actually underestimate the true rate of victimisation among the mentally ill, as much of it occurs within the home and is, therefore, under-reported (Hart et al. 2011).
That many people with more serious mental health problems are not violent holds true in my experience too. Having worked with clients with, not just MPD, but other personality disorders and schizophrenia, I can tell you that they are far more likely to hurt themselves than another person. Nearly all of my clients struggled with self-harming behaviours and regularly attempted suicide. And their disorders were almost always coping mechanisms related to emotional, physical, or sexual abuse that took place in their past.
Of course, these facts are all pretty heavy and don’t offer much in terms of entertainment, so it’s not surprising that anime, and other forms of entertainment, prefers to present mental health problems in a more sensational, thrilling, or comedic light. But when that depiction perpetuates the idea that people with mental health problems are more likely to be violent killers (something that might result in their victimisation), simply for entertainment’s sake, that’s unhelpful, cruel, and just plain irresponsible.