Thero Worthy Interview with Doctor Vasilis Pozios, M.D.

Thero Worthy articles are interviews with thought leaders in the mental health field. They feature people who are dedicated to reducing stigma, promoting mental diversity and making it easier to get help. To nominate someone you think is Thero Worthy click here.

 

Paul Berry: Hello Dr. Pozios and thanks for being our first “Thero Worthy” interviewee. Would you briefly introduce yourself to our readers?

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Media can be a force for good, fighting stigma by showcasing characters with more accurate and less stigmatizing representations of mental illnesses.

Vasilis Pozios, M.D.: Thanks, Paul, for the opportunity to connect with your readers.  My name is Vasilis K. Pozios, M.D., and I’m a physician board certified in psychiatry and in forensic psychiatry.  I’m passionate about mental health advocacy; I advocate for my fellow psychiatrists and our patients through my involvement in the American Psychiatric Association, as well as through an organization I co-founded in 2008, Broadcast Thought.

Paul: What is Broadcast Thought? What do you guys do?

Vasilis: Broadcast Thought is a mental health-and-media think tank comprised of three forensic psychiatrists – H. Eric Bender, M.D., Praveen Kambam, M.D., and myself – determined to shift the paradigm of how the media and entertainment industries portray mental health issues by harnessing the power of popular culture.

In this regard, we’re freelance contributors to The New York Times, WIRED, and The Walking Dead: The Official Magazine, where we discuss the psychological aspects of pop culture franchises as well as the larger societal impact of mental health media representations.  We regularly appear at pop culture conventions such as Comic-Con International: San Diego and New York Comic Con, speaking at mental health-themed panels that have been featured in The Huffington PostEntertainment WeeklyDiscover, and other outlets.

We’ve also served as creative consultants and subject matter experts to the writers and producers of several popular television series.  We’re now turning our attention to creating our own mental health-related original content; the first of these projects – Aura, a short comic book story about a super hero with bipolar disorder – was published last year in the anthology RISE: Comics Against Bullying from Northwest Press.

Paul:  Would you tell us a little about your experience of starting Broadcast Thought?

Vasilis: Broadcast Thought was co-founded in 2008 after Eric, Praveen, and I bonded over our shared love of pop culture – especially comic books and science fiction – and commiserated about inaccurate, stigmatizing media representations of people with mental illnesses in these and other genres.

We began speaking at pop culture conventions, couching mental health advocacy under the guise of exploring the psychology of fascinating fictional characters.  We still do this at pop culture conventions and in articles for WIRED and The Walking Dead magazine; fans enjoy learning more about the characters they love, and if they learn more about mental health in the process, we consider it a “win-win.”

A turning point of sorts came when we wrote a New York Times op-ed encouraging DC Comics to update their depiction of mental health, particularly with regard to the conflation of violence with mental illness among Batman’s villains.  Surprisingly, our stance proved to be controversial; not everyone agreed with our opinion – including some mental health professionals – but it appears as though those naysayers have now come around to support our position.

In recent years, especially the past year, I’d say, the discussion of mental health media representations has become much more accepted, along the lines of similar discussions regarding other mis-/underrepresented groups.  This has been validating for us, because we’ve firmly believed from our inception that those who promote more accurate, less stigmatizing media representations of people with mental illnesses will be on the right side of history.

Paul: Why is it important to have accurate portrayals of mental disorders in the media?

Vasilis: Media have the potential to perpetuate negative mental health stereotypes and reinforce stigma, particularly because of the massive audiences they are capable of reaching, but also because, psychologically, people have a tendency to accept negative stereotypes and reject the truth.

Conversely, media can be a force for good, fighting stigma by showcasing characters with more accurate and less stigmatizing representations of mental illnesses and their treatment, as I’m attempting to do (admittedly, in a small way) with Aura.

Paul: What is stigma and how does it apply to mental health problems?

Vasilis: Mental health stigma is the shame and discrimination people living with mental illnesses face on a daily basis.  Because of stigma, people with mental illnesses may be ostracized, leading to social, occupational, and housing problems.

The misconception that people with mental illnesses are inherently violent is one of the biggest (but far from the only) contributors to stigma.  After all, nobody wants to be known as a “homicidal maniac,” so people may not seek help in order to avoid this misnomer.

In fact, stigma kills – it kills people with mental illnesses by discouraging them from seeking necessary diagnosis and treatment, and that’s why we as mental health professionals have a duty to end it.

Paul: What are some examples of characters you’ve seen that have been accurately portrayed?

Vasilis: I was impressed with how substance use and other mental disorders were portrayed on the Cinemax series, The Knick.  I was particularly impressed by the show’s acknowledgment of the limitations of turn-of-the-century psychiatry as a fledgling field and the treatment challenges that result.

Although I’m not a fan of the title, FOX’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend attempts to subvert not only the sexist stereotype, but the stigmatizing one as well, and for that, it deserves praise.

The portrayal of electroconvulsive therapy on HBO’s Homeland was less than accurate, but the show continues to do a good job of portraying a character with a mental illness as a hero, not a villain.  We need more of that.

Paul: What are some examples of inaccurate portrayals?

Vasilis: I hate to harp on Batman, but FOX’s Gotham is so rife with stigmatizing mental health portrayals that it’s impossible to ignore.  Not only does Gotham inaccurately portray mental health symptoms and conflate violence with mental illness, characters have been blatantly discouraged from seeking mental health treatment.  For example, in the pilot episode, Alfred warns a young Bruce Wayne with behavioral problems, “No psychiatrists!”  Even for an over-the-top show like Gotham, the inaccurate, stigmatizing mental health portrayals are pretty egregious.

Paul:  What tips would you give our readers for telling the difference between accurate and inaccurate?

Vasilis: The burden of determining the accuracy of mental health portrayals shouldn’t be placed on audiences, who may not have first-hand mental health experience.  Nonetheless, with variable accuracy of mental health portrayals in media (including news media), improving the mental health literacy of audiences is a necessary goal.

I think of accuracy as existing on a spectrum – no portrayal will be completely accurate, and accuracy is, to a certain degree, subjective.  Beyond the accurate portrayal of symptoms and treatment, the conflation of violence with mental illness and the use of pejorative terminology when referring to people with mental illnesses should be avoided.

Paul:  What’s your favorite show right now?

Vasilis: The Knick – I’m really disappointed Steven Soderbergh won’t be continuing the story of the first two seasons.

Paul:  Who’s your favorite character- from any story- and what’s so special about him or her?

Vasilis: Batman.  Although it may not seem like it, given my criticism of how the Batman villains have been portrayed, I’ve in fact been a Batman fan for as long as I can remember.  Batman, to me, represents two things: being the best you can be, and never giving up, no matter the odds.  These are admirable qualities.

To see why Batman has been such an inspiration to so many people, go to Netflix and check out Legends of the Knight, a documentary Broadcast Thought partnered with filmmaker Brett Culp to produce.

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Despite her powers, Alexis has faced difficulties related to her bipolar disorder – she survived a suicide attempt and has struggled to find the right treatment.

Paul:  Would you briefly describe your comic book, Aura, for our readers?

Vasilis: Aura is the story of Alexis Pope, a fledgling fashion designer based in Brooklyn who lives with bipolar disorder and associated migraines.  Her headache harbinger – a rainbow-tinged visual aura – is actually an energy form that transforms her thoughts into physical projections.  Alexis can also fly and levitate objects, all with the polychromatic power of her mind!

But despite her powers, Alexis has faced difficulties related to her bipolar disorder – she survived a suicide attempt and has struggled ot find the right treatment.  As if these challenges weren’t enough, the stigma associated with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder has caused Alexis to feel isolated and marginalized.

With effective treatment, an empowered Alexis reframes the role mental illness plays in her life and embraces her heroic identity, forging ahead as the super hero Aura!

Paul:  Who or what was the inspiration for the character, Alexis Pope (AKA ‘Aura’) in your comic book?

Vasilis: Although not inspired by any specific patient, the many challenges people with mental illnesses face- which I have become familiar with in my career as a psychiatrist- informed the character of Alexis.  Stigma (including self-stigma), treatment non-adherence, and the importance of the therapeutic relationship are just some of the topics that influenced Alexis’ characterization.

As you know, over half of Americans – 183 million people – will experience a diagnosable mental disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Yet, there are few representations of people with mental illnesses in comic books.

And when mental disorders are depicted in comics, they are overwhelmingly associated with violence and villainy. But the vast majority of people with mental disorders do not commit violent acts; studies show only about four percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illnesses.

As a psychiatrist, mental health advocate, and life-long comic book fan, I felt the need to take corrective action, so I teamed up with acclaimed artist Marguerite Sauvage to redefine how people living with mental illnesses are represented in comics.

Aura eschews the shameful, archaic depictions of mental illness that have become ubiquitous tropes in comics.  Instead, Aura provides a positive role model, not only for people living with mental illnesses, but for anyone who defies stereotypes and believes they’re more than just a label.

Paul:  What’s in store for Alexis? What do you think her big challenges will be?

Vasilis: Alexis’ next big challenge will be trying to get published! It’s my sincere belief that mental health stigma is best fought through positive cultural change.  In this regard, it’s my intention to help effect change by pitching to publishers a comic book series based on Aura.

As you can probably tell, I’m very excited about Aura and the myriad possibilities of utilizing the character and story to combat mental health stigma, and I’m grateful to you, Paul, for giving me the opportunity to share Aura’s story with your readers.

Paul:  Thank you for taking time to do this interview, Dr. Pozios. Before we go, is there anyone that you’d like to nominate as being particularly Thero Worthy?

Vasilis: There’s a lot of people I’d like to nominate, but I think Brett Culp would be high on that list. Brett is a filmmaker best known for his 2013 documentary, Legends of the Knight, about the power of storytelling and the inspirational quality of Batman. Legends of the Knight was featured in over 100 grass-roots charity screenings across the country, and can now be seen on Netflix. Brett formed a non-profit, The Rising Hero Project, to help fund films that support charitable organizations and inspire communities.  Brett is currently working on Look to the Sky, a film about young people doing amazing things in the spirit of Superman.

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