The Joker is No Joke: Awareness of Mental Health Disparities

By Jasmine Kelly

“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” – Joaquin Phoenix, The Joker

Arthur Fleck’s (aka “The Joker”) words stayed with me the moment he uttered them in the 2019 movie, Joker. The film is an origin story of the popular DC Comic character, Joker. The movie recounts Arthur Fleck’s experience coping with mental illness. Arthur becomes known as “The Joker” later on in the film. The character, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a caregiver for his mother and works as a party clown. Ironically, Arthur wears two masks: one at work and the other as he tries to fit into the world around him. Fitting into society is a bit of a task for him as he has a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times–a characteristic that gets him into awkward situations many times throughout the movie.  To assist him in coping and with his self-work, Arthur sees a psychologist; however, that is short-lived due to city funding being cut which led to the elimination of the department and the psychologist’s position.

The movie became real for me the moment Arthur’s mental health services were cut. The film did a wonderful job of chronicling what someone with mental illness goes through when they lack the proper resources for care and their overall existence. Understanding how the lack of funding would immediately affect him, Arthur asks his case manager how he is supposed to go about getting his medication. This was a very real concern because finances can be a major barrier to health resources. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (2019), “African Americans, like many minority communities, are also more likely to experience socioeconomic disparities such as exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources. These disparities may contribute to worse mental health outcomes.”

What I paid most attention to in the film was how society responded to Arthur and more so, how he understood how the world received him. Despite what many people may think, individuals who have mental health needs are frequently very aware. I found myself cringing at how people treated him, and I marveled at the fact that despite having some of his worst days, he kept trying and working on himself (until of course, he became The Joker). That is when I thought about how those suffering from mental health issues move within the world and moreover, how society responds — specifically, within the Black community.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states, “In the African American community, family, community and spiritual beliefs tend to be great sources of strength and support. However, research has found that many African Americans rely on faith, family and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals, even though medical or therapeutic treatment may be necessary.” The American Psychiatric Association found that “only one-in-three African-Americans who need mental health care receives it.” These statistics are alarming and ones that our community cannot afford as “Black people with mental health conditions, particularly schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, and other psychoses are more likely to be incarcerated than people of other races.” So what now? We tackle it together!

What You Can Do

Privacy is central within the Black community, specifically in the household. Nonetheless, we must make it a habit to discuss mental health openly. It is okay to not be okay. If you want to be a mental health ally for your family and/or the Black community, you can start by simply having conversations and asking questions. For example, I make it a point to always ask my family and friends how they are doing. When I ask them this question, I emphasize the ‘you’ in the inquiry because I understand that people rarely ask about someone’s current state in a genuine way. From experience, when I have a lot happening in life, it is so refreshing for someone to sincerely take interest in what is happening with me. Additionally, once you engage in dialogue, be sure to actively listen to what that person has to say. In the event that they are not okay and/or you hear some things that may be alarming; do not be afraid to suggest professional help. Lastly, do your part to not further contribute to mental health bias. This can be done by being patient, understanding and checking your privilege.

Be well, family!


Jasmine Kelly is a contributing writer for the Pedestal Project, LLC. Jasmine is a higher education professional who believes in the powers of Black Twitter. You can follow her on Instagram @chicomydusty.

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