Harley Quinn's mental health

Harley Quinn is has been through a lot, which has made her a very complicated character. Though we love her antics and quirks, it’s extremely important that we address Harley Quinn’s mental health journey. It’s more relatable than you may realize, especially if you don’t deal with any kind of mental health complications.

As we know, our environment can affect our mentality and wellbeing in a major way. External stressors — literally things that cause you stress — can amplify disorders like anxiety and depression. They can also trigger mental health disorders as well. If this happens, you could be living with them for the rest of your life.

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So what exactly triggered it in Harley’s case?

What We Know About Harley Quinn’s Mental Health

First of all, let me point out the obvious. I’m not a doctor nor an expert. I’m a person who lives with a mental health issue — I have anxiety and I’ve struggled with depression in the past. I also have family members and friends who deal with similar complications, and I’ve done a lot of research on mental health over the years. Diagnosing anyone, even a fictional character, is best left to an actual doctor. However, for the purposes of exploration and analysis, I’m going to try to venture a guess as to what’s going on with Harley Quinn’s mental health.

If I had to diagnose Harley, I would say that she’s struggled with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In her current state, I’d say that she has a better hold over her BPD, but not so much her ADHD.

Harley Quinn's mental health
Harley shows off her temper in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation.

BPD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is “a mental illness marked by an ongoing pattern of varying moods, self-image, and behavior. These symptoms often result in impulsive actions and problems in relationships.” It’s my belief that this manifests for Harley in her relationship with the Joker.

As for ADHD, the NIMH says that there are three traits that mark this brain disorder: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. So that pretty much sounds like Harley in a nutshell.

In the Beginning

Harley Quinn more than likely knows that she has these mental health issues. After all, she was a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. She would’ve learned about BPD and ADHD in medical school. She could have diagnosed herself right then and there, right?

Well, actually, probably not. Because you see, both of these disorders tend to manifest in women between the ages of twenty and thirty. Harley Quinn’s mental health could’ve been seemingly manageable when she graduated medical school at twenty-six. These issues might have only come up, or were exacerbated, when she started working in Arkham.

Harley Quinn's mental health
Dr. Harleen Quinzel, before she becomes Harley Quinn in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation.

This, of course, is where she meets the Joker. I believe that Harley meeting the Joker is what sparked her BPD. It seems that Harley could have had BPD laying dormant or slowly building for a while, since her relationship with her family was rather rocky. This, however, is where it would really get difficult to manage.

The Worst Relationship Ever

As previously stated, external stressors can trigger mental health issues. Being the Joker’s doctor couldn’t possibly be good for anyone’s mental health.

Now, BPD can affect relationships in a very negative way. That doesn’t mean that Harley is to blame for the Joker’s abuse. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The NIMH says that BPD effects “how [those afflicted] see themselves and their role in the world. As a result, their interests and values can change quickly… people with borderline personality disorder also tend to view things in extremes, such as all good or all bad.”

Because BPD affects how one sees oneself, it stands to reason that Harley’s BPD contributed to her version of the relationship. It explains why, even though part of her knows she doesn’t deserve his abuse, the other part of her still thinks she does. She sees Joker as “all good,” and herself — along with Batman and his allies — as “all bad.” Her mind makes excuses for Joker because she’s convinced he’s good. So, in her mind, his behavior must be her fault.

Harley Quinn's mental health
The Joker attacks Harley, even after they’ve split. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Additionally, her BPD may have contributed to the initiation of this relationship in the first place. The NIMH states that one of the symptoms of BPD is, “efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, such as rapidly initiating intimate (physical or emotional) relationships or cutting off communication with someone in anticipation of being abandoned.” So it also makes sense that she’d stay in the relationship.

Again, this doesn’t make her, or anyone else for that matter, worthy of victim blaming. The Joker sees Harley as someone who’s easily manipulated because of her mental health issues, and he preys upon that.

Breaking Free

Harley still deals with her BPD, even though she’s finally broken free of the Joker’s hold on her. Even in Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor’s version of Harley, which shows her as a much more independent character, she’s dealing with her mental health complications.

Harley Quinn’s mental health may seem more in check, but it really isn’t. There’s a moment when Harley pays Joker a little visit while he’s in prison. She nearly beats him to death. Yes, it’s understandable that she’d want to kick the crap out of the guy who abused her for years. Yet maybe these feelings were exacerbated. BPD causes “inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger.”

Harley Quinn's mental health
Harley wears her souvenir after beating the snot out of the Joker. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Harley has quite a temper, whether directed at the Joker or not. Even in the more recent iterations, she deals with a lot of BPD’s symptoms. She engages in “impulsive and often dangerous behaviors,” and “feelings of dissociation, such as feeling cut off from oneself, seeing oneself from outside one’s body, or feelings of unreality.” Harley has a lot of visions, sometimes of a fantastical nature. I mean, she talks to a beaver’s corpse for goodness sake.

On top of that, Harley’s ADHD makes her even more impulsive and hyperactive. She’s always running somewhere to do something random, on top of all the responsibilities she has. She’s often putting more on her plate, and people are always telling her it’s too much. Yet this is Harley’s reality, and it’s definitely more under control than it was with the Joker.

The Stigma

You can’t discuss mental health without addressing the stigma associated with it. Harley Quinn’s mental health keeps her from being acknowledged as one of the most intelligent people in the DC Universe. She’s a legitimate doctor for goodness sake.

Also, even though she has BPD and ADHD, Harley’s emotional intelligence is through the roof. She has empathy for every single person she comes across and puts everyone else before her. She’s kindhearted and understanding (for the most part, just don’t piss her off).

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People often dismiss Harley as a “crazy” character, which is extremely demeaning. Whether I got her diagnosis correct or not, Harley’s definitely dealing with some kind of mental health issue. That doesn’t give anyone the right to dismiss or discount her. She’s a strong, badass survivor. Harley’s been to hell and back, and has come out better for it. She deserves all the respect in the world, as does anyone else struggling with their mental health.

There’s no shame at all in getting help and talking to someone about treatment. When you hurt your arm or get a terrible virus, you seek treatment. So let’s not act differently when another vital organ — our brain — also needs attention.

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