Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness of some kind within a given year. Psychological disorders have become so ubiquitous, in fact, that the much shame once associated with them has disappeared. Regardless of whether you have had first hand experience with mental health issues, at the very least, you definitely know someone who has.
Superheroes are hardly accurate representations of actual human beings – especially where anatomy is concerned – but that doesn’t mean that they don’t suffer from the same issues as the rest of us. Being a hero isn’t exactly an easy gig and these champions aren’t necessarily a picture of sanity before they make the decision to don a costume in the first place.
Living with mental illness is difficult for anyone, but consider dealing with those issues in the day-to-day context of being a member of the Justice League.
Some of these stories offer a surprisingly accurate depiction of what it’s like to suffer from mental afflictions. Others only served to pronounce the already well-worn stigma of psychological disorders. Either way, these characters have all certainly had their ups and downs.
Here are 15 Superheroes (And Villains) Who’ve Struggled With Mental Illness.
15 Wonder Woman - Psychotic Break
Diana of Themyscira is a paragon of truth, the embodiment of justice and the epitome of strength. That strength comes from so much more than her physical power.
In 1941, William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman to smash the patriarchy, but the succession of male writers after him didn’t always get that – like when Diana becoming secretary of the JSA. Greg Rucka, who returned to writing the character for DC Rebirth, has never been afraid to take risks with her.
Rucka’s more recent arc, “The Truth” sees Diana suffer a psychotic break in the wake of learning truths that she could not handle. The reality that she knew wasn’t exactly real and she crumbled under the weight of this knowledge. She wound up in a mental institution, with no idea what was fact and what was fiction.
Although much of the stigma of mental illness has waned, many still view it as a sign of weakness. Rucka took what is arguably DC’s strongest character and proved that she too was vulnerable to pressures of the mind. Like everyone who has suffered such a traumatic experience, Diana needed her friends to help her through it.
14 Two-Face - Multiple Personalities
Harvey Dent made his first appearance way back in 1942 in Detective Comics #66. Left hideously disfigured after a mob boss threw acid at him, the once heroic district attorney completely lost his mind.
Depending on what you read, poor Harvey suffered from either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in his youth, but the general consensus is that after he was maimed, he developed dissociative identity disorder.
More widely known as multiple personality disorder, this condition is often brought on by trauma. Harvey became obsessed with duality. He had two distinct, warring identities and began using a coin to make every decision.
Despite his status as one of Batman’s greatest foes, Harvey is generally considered a tragic figure: a good man who simply could not win the brutal fight against his mental illness.
13 Hank Pym - Bipolar Disorder
While most of these characters have suffered from mental illness at some point in their career, the struggle for Ant-Man, aka Giant Man, aka Yellowjacket, aka Goliath, has been ongoing. First appearing in Tales to Astonish #27 in 1962, Hank Pym’s ongoing mental issues have become a hallmark of the character. Unfortunately, the handling of his erratic behavior has been, well, erratic.
Hank’s condition was generally used as an impetus for more dramatic plot elements and therefore, how he managed his condition became an afterthought. He certainly had more identities than your average hero, and by the time he got to Yellowjacket, his mental health had completely spiraled out of control. This resulted in Hank’s confusion over his new persona, as well as domestic violence against his then wife, Janet van Dyne.
Although Hank’s mental illness – his official diagnosis is bipolar disorder – hasn’t often been handled particularly well, he has been confronted with these issues more than his fellow Avengers.
12 Daredevil - Depression
It should really be no surprise that the Man Without Fear has suffered crippling depression.
Created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett in 1964, Matt Murdoch’s journey has never been an easy one. In just about every major run on the character, there is at least some allusion to the character’s mental illness.
Frank Miller’s “Born Again” is not only one of the greatest Daredevil stories ever written, but it was also probably the most personal. The best writers on the book seem to be the ones who put poor Matt through the most pain. Few heroes have lost quite so much. Seriously, who wouldn’t be depressed?
More recently, Mark Waid has done a pretty in depth character study of Matt, writing about the character’s depression with first hand experience on the topic. In Waid’s deft hands, Matt’s very real pain grounds the superhero comic in a dark, but relatable reality. In stark contrast to Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s brilliant run, Waid and Chris Samnee’s depiction of the character was brighter, happier even, which made Daredevil’s descent into depression all the more poignant.
11 Rorschach - PPD
Rorschach is at the heart of Alan Moore’s seminal and celebrated 1986 limited comic series, Watchmen. Although many readers will passionately defend the character’s sanity, Walter Kovacs is no less damaged than his former comrades. Perhaps his intentions are good, but that doesn’t make Rorschach any less disturbed.
The Watchmen film incorrectly labels Walter as a sociopath, but typically, sociopaths lack empathy. Walter does have empathy - and he is also pretty deficient in the charm department, which is a trait typically associated with sociopaths.
Still, Walter is certainly not entirely right in the head. The more likely diagnosis would be paranoid personality disorder. This mental illness is characterized by paranoia and an inexorable mistrust of others. It’s even likely that Walter was suffering from more than one personality disorder, perhaps brought on by traumatic youth.
10 Jessica Jones - PTSD
Created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos in 2001, Jessica Jones is a survivor in every sense of the word. Although her journey in the Netflix series diverges quite a bit from the source material, her characterization remains largely the same. Despite great adversity, Jessica grew into a strong, confident woman who not only believed in herself, but also in the inherent good of others. That was before she met Zebediah Killgrave.
The Purple Man systematically destroyed Jessica. He stripped her of everything she was, piece by piece, leaving her a broken shell of a person. In the wake of this horrifying trauma, Jessica suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which she did her best to drink away. She escaped her abuser, but wasn't able to leave him behind, despite her best efforts.
After hanging up her tights and becoming a PI, Jessica continued to struggle with those inner demons. It took her quite some time, but eventually she made her way to the other side. Jessica was able to find happiness in both life and love, and her brutal abuse at the hands of Killgrave became a distant memory.
9 Legion - Dissociative Identity Disorder
Charles Xavier’s son, David Haller, was introduced in New Mutants #25 in 1985. Much of David’s journey has revolved around his dissociative identity disorder. In his case, his powers each manifest through one of many distinct personalities. Legion is one of the world’s most powerful mutants, but also one of the most unstable. Rather than controlling his tremendous powers, they have a tendency to control him instead.
Much of David’s comic history, as well as the excellent Legion TV show, have acted as a rather elegant metaphor for living with mental illness. The 2013 X-Men: Legacy run by Simon Spurrier and Mike Del Mundo created a particularly enlightening and deeply personal story to this effect.
Legion’s character is a rare instance in comics or television in which mental illness has been used as more than a mere plot device.
8 Carnage - Clinical Psychopathy
Fan favorite Spider-Man villain Carnage, made his initial appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #361, although Cletus Kasady first showed up in #344. Symbiote or no, Cletus is a complete psychopath: no empathy or remorse, antisocial, with a huge ego. Oh yeah, and he happens to be completely obsessed with chaos.
Those afflicted with this serious personality disorder are typically considered beyond any type of rehabilitation. As a child, Cletus tormented the family dog and killed his own grandmother. He would grow up to be one of NYC’s most violent criminals. All this was before he ever came in contact with the alien symbiote that turned Eddie Brock into Venom.
It was a match made in psycho heaven though and the two entities merged into one of Spider-Man’s deadliest foes.
7 The Riddler - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
“You don't understand... I really didn't want to leave you any clues. I really planned never to go back to Arkham Asylum. But I left you a clue anyway. So I... I have to go back there. Because I might need help. I... I might actually be crazy.” This quote from Edward Nigma, aka the Riddler, perfectly sums up the character’s obsessive-compulsive disorder. He made his first appearance in Detective Comics #140 in 1948.
Despite the fact that many perfectionists claim themselves as “so OCD”, this mental illness is as misunderstood as many of the others on this list. Batman catches the Riddler over and over again, due either to Nigma’s obsession with proving himself smarter than the Caped Crusader or the fact that he is physically incapable of committing a crime without leaving a riddle – depending on what you read. Either way, Nigma definitely suffers from OCD.
6 Mera - Nervous Breakdown
Mera, Queen of Atlantis, made her first appearance in 1963 in Aquaman #11. She is best known for being Aquaman’s wife. The two had a child together, Arthur Curry Jr., aka Aquababy. Just two years later, Black Manta kidnapped the child. He poisoned Arthur Jr., leaving him in a coma.
Mera fought long and hard to find a cure, and succeeded… only to return home and discover that she was too late. The pain of losing her son, caused Mera to suffer a nervous breakdown. She wound up hospitalized and for quite some time blamed Arthur for what she considered “weak genes”. Things took a rather dramatic turn from there and Aquaman accidentally impaled her after she attacked him. Luckily, her vital organs aren’t located where ours are!
We look forward to seeing what Amber Heard does with the character in DC’s upcoming Aquaman film, due out December 21st, 2018.
5 Scarlet Witch - Psychotic Break
Wanda Maximoff made her debut in Uncanny X-Men #4 in 1964. The Scarlet Witch’s power set has evolved more than that of most any other hero in Marvel’s history. She began as a second string character with the ability to hex people, but later became one of the most feared people in the Marvel universe. Her hex powers enabled her to completely reshape reality on a massive scale. They also made her incredibly unstable.
Wanda had suffered a lifetime’s worth of trauma and the perceived loss of her children was too much for her already fractured psyche. In the wake of this final tragedy, Wanda irrevocably altered the world.
She suffered a psychotic break and decimated the mutant population. In recent years, Wanda managed to find a way back to herself, but many have yet to forgive her.
4 Moon Knight - DID
People like to say that Batman is as insane as the villains he fights. Moon Knight is kind of what the Caped Crusader would look like if that was actually true. Marc Spector’s first appearance was in Werewolf by Night #32 in 1975. He may be a bit of a Batman analog, but he is certainly no carbon copy.
Both are wealthy who fight crime with an array of gadgets. In either case, their civilian identities are more the mask than the ones that they put on to scare criminals. However, Moon Knight suffers from dissociative identity disorder and this is a huge aspect of his character.
Moon Knight often differs greatly from volume to volume, but the main constant is Marc’s struggle to remain sane. Jeff Lemire’s recent run found the hero in a mental institution where Khonshu attempted to wear him down completely. Although the character is also referred to as the Fist of Khonsh. The entity that ostensibly gave Marc his powers has often tested his sanity more than anything else.
3 Harley Quinn - Battered Person Syndrome
It’s strange and unsettling how many people seem to view the Joker and Harley Quinn as #RelationshipGoals. Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for the beloved Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn has gone on to become one of the most popular comic characters of all time. As much fun as people have watching the exploits of Harley and her on-again, off-again honey, there is no denying that she is suffering from battered person syndrome.
Sure, you could argue that Dr. Harleen Quinzel already had a screw loose when she chose to help her patient escape Arkham Asylum. Still, her subsequent relationship with “Mista J” has been anything but healthy. The Joker abuses Harley in every possible way: physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Yet, no matter how many times she escapes him, Harley always returns for more pain.
This is indicative of a very serious mental illness and it can be assumed that at various points, the character has been powerless to control it. In the more recent comics, Harley Quinn has begun to regain some control over her own life. Sadly though, she may never be free of the Joker. Sadder still, many fans don’t want her to be.
2 The Sentry - Agoraphobia, Alcoholism, Schizophrenia
Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee created Robert Reynolds, aka the Sentry, in 2000. He is one of Marvel’s most powerful superheroes, whose abilities are hindered only by his fractured psyche. Robert has struggled with agoraphobia, alcoholism, and schizophrenia. Although he underwent treatment for schizophrenia specifically, his mental illness sometimes seems closer to dissociative identity disorder.
Robert is both the hero and the villain of his story, a condition that was created by the supervillain Mastermind. However, once Robert learned that the Sentry and the Void are one and the same, his mental state continued to deteriorate.
Although the Sentry possesses the power of “a million exploding suns”, his psychological issues are a huge chink in his armor. Sadly, this has allowed the Sentry to be exploited more than once, most notably by Norman Osborn.
1 Typhoid Mary - DID
Like several other characters on this list, Mary Walker suffers from dissociative identity disorder. Known as Typhoid Mary, this Daredevil villain was created by Ann Nocenti and John Romita Jr. She made her first appearance in 1988 in Daredevil #254.
Mary has three distinct personalities: Mary is a timid pacifist, Typhoid is all about sex and violence, Bloody is a cruel sadist who despises men. She is telekinetic, an excellent martial artist, and is capable of setting people on fire with her mind.
Matt Murdoch inadvertently caused Mary’s condition, and two of her personalities later became entwined with him, as well as his superhero identity. One version of Mary one so different from the next, that at first, even Matt’s enhanced senses couldn’t tell them apart.
Can you think of any other superheroes or villains who have struggled with mental illness? Let us know in the comments!