Syd to David and the group therapy in LEGION:

“What if your problems aren’t in your head? What if they aren’t even problems?”

LEGION introduces us to Syd by having her ask this question. Sitting in group therapy, she wonders if mental illness is really a problem. She asks if the real “problem” is that society deems people as abnormal. Her line of thinking automatically piques David’s interest (although it does help that she’s also very pretty) enough that he asks her to be his girlfriend in the middle of group therapy.

Syd’s question piqued my interest as well. LEGION deals heavily with mental illness from an angle that media doesn’t often portray. Syd is, in part, shown to be right — mental illness isn’t the sole cause of David’s problems in life. The assumption that he’s “sick” and therefore dangerous tends to only make things worse. However, there’s an issue with going the entirely opposite route as well. Melanie Bird’s assumption that David is neurotypical and simply psychic puts him in danger as well.

Image courtesy of FX & Marvel Entertainment.

Grey Areas

LEGION has nestled itself in a complicated grey area of understanding when it comes to neurodiversity. One of the biggest problems for neurodivergent people is that society punishes them for not fitting into the “norm” for brain function. However, trying to act as if neurodivergent people don’t have any issues can lead to neglecting their specific mental needs. Neither is a solution that meets David’s needs. This is true for neurodivergent people even outside of the realm of fiction.

Image courtesy of FX & Marvel Entertainment

Neurotypical characters in LEGION seem decidedly uncomfortable with finding a happy medium. People’s view of David is treated as very black and white: he’s either a paranoid schizophrenic or an extremely powerful mutant. For some reason, people can’t imagine that he could be an extremely powerful mutant who is also neurodivergent.

This dichotomy of seeing neurodiversity as either an unmanageable danger or non-existent is one people deal with in real life. Ableism drives society at large to either write off neurodivergent people as “not really sick” or “too sick.” Both issues lie in the idea that neurodivergence is the brain not working “normally,” there is no set standard for “normal” when it comes to brains other than a socially enforced norm.

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In part, Sydney is right: the problem is, predominately, people interpreting neurodivergent people as abnormal. At the same time, though, she leaves out the acknowledgment that different people have different needs. It’s not okay to simply leave a neurodivergent person with no assistance for how their brain functions. If the idea of people being “normal” is false, it follows that people all have different needs.

Option One: David Is Sick

LEGION, at its beginning, presents the idea that David has paranoid schizophrenia. His symptoms involve hearing voices, seeing things, violent impulses, and so on. As we learn more and more about him as LEGION continues, we know he also spent a fair amount of time as a drug addict, and violently attacked his therapist. It’s easy to see how he lines up with the typical idea of a “scary” schizophrenic person.

Image courtesy of FX & Marvel Entertainment

LEGION doesn’t show us a world that treats neurodivergent people, especially those with “scary” symptoms, kindly. No one seems to tackle his drug addiction from a standpoint of considering why someone in his position would develop addictions. While Clockworks does have group therapy, the staff seems generally uncaring. LEGION shows us the Clockworks staff most prominently when they’re subduing patients.

David’s mental health isn’t approached as something that should be understood and managed—it’s treated as something to be suppressed. The people around him clearly see him as someone to be feared when interpreting him as schizophrenic. Even his own approach to his mental health isn’t particularly kind. Everyone viewing David as “sick” seems to approach his brain as something broken.

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Option Two: David Isn’t Sick, He’s a Mutant

It seems like someone swooping in and telling David he’s never been schizophrenic would be a miracle. Summerland’s mutants free him from a psych ward that he may have been stuck in indefinitely. On top of that, they tell him that his symptoms are actually a product of being a powerful psychic. Despite the situation with Summerland seeming like a life-saver, it quickly becomes clear that Melanie Bird’s notions of his powers aren’t safe for David either.

Image courtesy of FX & Marvel Entertainment

Melanie seems naturally predisposed to not believe David. When he says something is wrong or states that he’s not purposefully closing off his mind, she reacts with irritation and annoyance. She has thoroughly convinced herself that all of his problems are based on him not knowing he’s a mutant. Due to this, Melanie seems to reject any ideas that David might have issues outside of his mutation.

This isn’t less harmful than treating David as inherently dangerous. When someone pretends there isn’t a problem, it only causes more problems in the long run. Ignoring an issue not only means the issue goes unfixed, but typically means it will worsen while it’s being avoided.  Melanie’s insistence that he has no mental health problems causes him to get progressively worse when it comes to losing control to Farouk.

Option Three: David Is a Mutant…Who’s Also Neurodivergent?

Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Melanie Bird that David could also be dealing with mental health issues. Depending on your viewpoint, it might be an easy conclusion to come to. Neurodivergent people watching LEGION probably clocked David as struggling with things they’re familiar with. Even beyond hearing voices and dealing with delusions — things accredited to his status as a mutant, or to the interference of Farouk—he’s clearly developed symptoms of other mental health problems.

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Being neurodivergent isn’t always something that people are born with. Some people are born predisposed to having their brains not produce certain chemicals, or simply having different processing abilities…but strenuous and traumatic situations can cause someone to develop depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other symptoms. David’s life has been anything but easy. To act like simply going through his memories and saying “but these signs of mental illness were simply your mutation” would fix his lived reality is ridiculous.

Image Courtesy of FX & Marvel Entertainment

There’s also the fact that David was an addict. People don’t tend to recover from addiction easily — and some of the worst crimes we know he committed tie back to his drug addiction. Even if he didn’t show signs of depression and PTSD, his addiction in and of itself is an issue that the people at Summerland seem to ignore.

The idea that his powers could be misinterpreted as schizophrenia isn’t necessarily wrong. However, the lack of consideration that David’s powers might affect his mental health is not only worrying, it’s dangerous.

David vs. Ableism

LEGION pits David against a lot of adversaries — Division Three and Farouk are obviously at the top of the list. However, a lot of LEGION is about him struggling due to the perceptions of others. So many issues in his life could be remedied simply by having someone listen to and believe him. Sadly, people have taken their personal sides in deciding who he is. Instead of letting him prove himself, or be his own person, they have created a box to shove David into.

Image courtesy of FX & Marvel Entertainment

The therapists at Clockworks, David’s sister, and even Ptonomy at Summerland have all decided that he is neurodivergent. In their interpretation, because of ableism, this means he can’t be trusted at all, and they should view him as consistently dangerous. Melanie Bird and Division Three have decided that he’s neurotypical, and a powerful mutant. Their interpretation of who David is has an insidious undercurrent — the idea that he doesn’t need any assistance, and the idea that if he’s a powerful mutant, he can’t be “crazy.”

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The ways people approach David because of their personal views of neurodivergent people hurt him. It’s that simple. Both the belief that David’s brain makes him dangerous and untrustworthy and the belief that David’s brain works no differently from any other psychics lead to people not listening to him. He is constantly placed in a position of either being “sick,” and thus not worth believing, or being “not sick,” and thus not worth believing.

LEGION vs. the “Real” World

It’s true that, as far as I’m aware, no one is running around with incredibly powerful psychic abilities in our world. However, David’s position is familiar to neurodivergent people. If they don’t present in a way that’s visibly seen as “unhealthy,” people underestimate or disbelieve their symptoms…but if they show their symptoms, they’re discredited as crazy, and typically forced into psych wards.

David’s treatment is a tangle of a lot of different ways society can punish and deprive neurodivergent people. Society stereotypes people with schizophrenia and other diagnoses as inherently and unquestionably dangerous, making them well acquainted with the looming threat of psych wards. Most neurodivergent people are also familiar with the idea that managing their symptoms means people will assume they don’t really have any.

Image courtesy of FX & Marvel Entertainment

I’ll be honest — I was extremely cautious of LEGION at first. My track record with media that portrays psych wards isn’t the best, first off. Secondly, while David Haller is one of my favorite comic book characters, comics tend to drop the ball on dissociative identity disorder or schizophrenia. I was worried LEGION was tackling David’s powers in the same way as the comics when it introduced Melanie.

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LEGION, as a show, didn’t go the easy route. LEGION revels in its messiness. It presents David as a full person, showing that it doesn’t have to be that he’s either a mutant or neurodivergent. David can be more than one thing at once. It’s a reminder that people are full people outside their neurodiversity, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have specific needs tied to being neurodivergent.

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