Hi, folks! In this episode, we talked about psychological themes throughout Season 2 of Jessica Jones (major spoilers in this episode). We discussed post-traumatic stress disorder, anger control problems, substance use disorders, and dissociation. We also checked in about the development of the main characters in this season and what we thought about the directions their characters went in.
Hello, Jedi Counsel listeners! After a recording hiatus (due to illness, travel, and general busy-ness), we’re back! In this episode, we discussed the first three episodes of Season 2 of Jessica Jones. First, we talked about the depiction of Jessica Jones as a person who is affected by posttraumatic stress disorder and alcohol use disorder. For more details, please check out our blog post and podcast episode about Season 1 of Jessica Jones. Secondly, we talked about the psychological science on hypnosis and recovered memories (this paper suggests that it’s harmful). For more about the science on memories, check out our episode on brain myths with cognitive psychologist, Dr. Rob Gordon. For more about Elizabeth Loftus’ work on memory, you can watch her TED Talk here. Finally, we concluded with our reactions to the phrase that The Whizzer says, “With great power comes great mental illness.”
Name: Jessica Jones
Date of Birth into Comics: November, 2001
Education: High school diploma
Date of Initial Interview: 11/20/2015
Date of Report: 10/01/2016
Therapists: Katie Gordon, Ph.D., Brandon T. Saxton, M.S.
Jessica Jones was referred for a psychological evaluation by her sister, Patricia “Trish” Walker. Trish was concerned that Jessica was experiencing negative effects from the multiple traumatic events that had occurred throughout her life, including developing a drinking problem to cope with trauma-related stress. Trish expressed a belief that Jessica’s life would be much better if she received treatment, despite Jessica denying experiencing any problems at all. Jessica presented as very resistant for this interview, calling us “a#$holes” and maintaining that she would not waste her time whining to therapists.
Jessica Jones was the only daughter of Brian and Alisa Jones. She grew up with her parents and younger brother, Philip. Jessica was not a very social young woman, preferring to spend time alone and often expressing annoyance at others. Tragically, Jessica’s family was killed in a car accident. Jessica recalled that the accident was caused by her father’s distraction as she and her brother were fighting. It was clear that Jessica still blamed herself for this event.
After the death of her family, Jessica was adopted by Dorothy Walker, a talent agent. According to Jessica, Dorothy only adopted her as a publicity stunt to promote her daughter’s television show. Jessica’s new family and home life came with turmoil. Jessica would often overhear the Walkers fighting over Trish’s television show. Jessica stated that Dorothy put the show’s success above all else. She recalled seeing bruises on her sister’s neck, which she suspected were inflicted by Dorothy.
At one point, Jessica found Dorothy forcing Trish to vomit into a toilet in an attempt to make her lose weight. Jessica used her incredible strength to throw Dorothy across the room. Dorothy fled in terror, and this sparked the beginning of a closer friendship between the sisters.
Later in Jessica’s life, while toying with the idea of becoming a superhero, she met a man named Kevin Thompson, better known as Kilgrave. Kilgrave was experimented on as a child by his parents. They were hoping to treat his neurodegenerative disease but ended up giving him the ability to control people’s minds. He met and became fascinated with Jessica when he witnessed her overpowering some criminals to prevent a mugging.
Jessica spent the next few months under Kilgrave’s mind control. They stayed together in a motel room, and he commanded her to tell Trish that everything was fine whenever she would check on Jessica. Kilgrave felt that they were in an actual relationship, but Jessica identified the traumatic time as his forcing her to be with him with his power of controlling people. At one point, when Jessica had a few moments of free will, she contemplated jumping off of a building. Kilgrave found her and ordered her to step down from the ledge.
Later on, Kilgrave was trying to obtain a flash drive that contained evidence of his parents trying to treat his neurogenerative disease through experimental and painful methods. Kilgrave discovered that a woman had buried the flash drive under concrete. He commanded Jessica to dig it up, which took hours. Then, Kilgrave commanded Jessica to kill the woman. She punched her so hard in the chest that her heart stopped. Jessica stated that, after killing the woman, she was so distraught, she actually walked away from Kilgrave. While walking away, Kilgrave was screaming for her to come back, and he was hit by a bus. This ended his control over her. Jessica believed he was dead.
Following high school, Jessica worked a few different jobs. The first was in an office. Jessica hated the position, stating that “This job was sucking my brains out through the air vent.” After a few weeks there, Jessica used her investigation skills to blackmail her boss. He was committing fraud, and Jessica leveraged this information into a six-month severance package in addition to a letter of recommendation.
Jessica’s next job was working at a sandwich shop. She wore a sandwich costume, handed out fliers, and hated the job. While passing out fliers on the street, Jessica saw a young girl run into the road. Springing into action, Jessica was able to use her powers to save the girl from being hit by a taxi. Hearing the gratitude in the girl’s voice, in addition to the urging of her sister, Jessica actually considered using her powers to become a superhero.
Ultimately, after the events involving Kilgrave, Jessica gave up on the notion of becoming a hero. Instead, she opened a private investigation firm called Alias Investigations. Jessica’s work at Alias often involved being hired by people who thought their romantic partners were having affairs, and she also helped locate missing people.
Jessica reported experiencing some prior psychiatric treatment from a therapist who taught her to recite her childhood neighborhood street names when experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. She had a negative view of mental health services, reporting that her previous therapist was a “quack,” saying that she did not want to join a “group of whiners,” and “screw therapy.” Jessica also once had a physician prescribe her antipsychotic medications, claiming that she was paranoid. Another person stated that Jessica was “coming across as distinctly paranoid,” to which she responded, “Everyone keeps saying that. It’s like a conspiracy.” However, the physician and other person were incorrect in their assumptions about her being paranoid, because Jessica was, in fact, being stalked by Kilgrave. Beyond obtaining super-strength, near invulnerability, and remarkable jumping ability while hospitalized following her family’s car accident, Jessica denied any other significant medical history.
Assessment & Diagnostic Impressions:
All assessment information was gathered through behavioral observations (i.e., watching Jessica Jones on Netflix). Jessica’s symptoms were best captured by two diagnoses featured in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5th Edition (DSM-5): PTSD and alcohol use disorder.
As mentioned above, Jessica directly experienced multiple traumatic events (defined by the DSM-5 as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence). Jessica’s PTSD symptoms mostly related to her traumatic experiences with Kilgrave, which included rape, emotional abuse, and being subject to extremely controlling and manipulative behavior. For example, Jessica appeared to experience multiple intrusive symptoms, such as nightmares (e.g., she woke up crying after dreaming that Kilgrave licked her face) and flashbacks (e.g., she felt as if Kilgrave was talking to her, which led her to burst into tears). Jessica also exhibited avoidance of situations that reminded her of the traumatic events (e.g., veered away from talking or thinking about what happened, consumed large quantities of alcohol to cope with trauma-related thoughts). When a friend suggested that she talk about her traumatic experiences, Jessica responded, “I prefer repression.” The friend added, “And self-medication,” referring to her frequent alcohol use. Additionally, she appeared to have negative changes to her thoughts and moods including distorted beliefs about herself and others (e.g., isolated herself from people due to self-blame for what she did under Kilgrave’s control). For example, a neighbor commented that she used sarcasm to distance herself from people and another neighbor stated that Jessica picked apart other people’s happiness because she was all alone (to which Jessica responded, “You are a very perceptive asshole!”). Jessica also told her sister, “I’m life-threatening, Trish. Stay clear of me.” Consistent with this pattern, Jessica tried to push Luke Cage away early in their budding romantic relationship. Finally, Jessica suffered changes in her arousal and reactivity (e.g., irritable mood, angry outbursts, reckless behavior including drinking alcohol to the point of being kicked out of a bar). A lawyer who she worked with described Jessica as “erratic” and “volatile.” When the same lawyer suggested that Kilgrave’s powers might be used for good, Jessica reacted by shattering glass with her fist. Jessica’s response to someone suggesting that she get a massage for stress reduction was, “Massages make me tense,” which is an atypical reaction to massages and may potentially be related to altered reactivity following her traumatic experiences (though this is speculative).
The DSM-5 defines alcohol use disorder as “a problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to significant impairment or distress, as manifested by at least two” of eleven symptoms. Jessica appeared to experience the following symptoms of alcohol use disorder: spending a significant amount of time using and recovering from alcohol (Jessica is shown drinking frequently throughout the day) and cravings to use alcohol (this was especially apparent when Jessica experienced elevated stress levels). It is difficult to assess the presence of some of the other alcohol use disorder symptoms based on the series, but it seemed possible that Jessica also developed some tolerance due to her frequent drinking and may have used alcohol in situations where it was dangerous to do so. Moreover, multiple people commented on her excessive drinking. Trish stated that she had alcoholism, and Kilgrave asked if she thought she drank too much (to which she replied, “It’s the only way I get through my day after how you treated me.”
In summary, Jessica appeared to meet full diagnostic criteria for PTSD and alcohol use disorder. Well-established treatments exist for both disorders. Evidence-based treatments for PTSD include therapist-guided processing of traumas (e.g., Cognitive Processing Therapy, Prolonged Exposure) and decreasing unhealthy behavioral patterns without focusing directly on the traumas (e.g., Present-Centered Therapy). With regard to alcohol use disorder, research suggests that multiple types of treatment (e.g., Motivational Enhancement Therapy, which aims to strengthen desire and ability to decrease substance use) are most effective. Finally, Seeking Safety may be an appropriate choice for Jessica, because it is a research-supported treatment specifically designed for individuals struggling with comorbid PTSD and substance use problems. Seeking Safety includes teaching healthy coping strategies and skills to clients, so that they find safety in their relationships, feelings, and thoughts.
THE GORDON/SAXTON TEST
1. Was the portrayal of mental illness accurate?
The portrayal of mental health problems in Jessica Jones was among the most accurate depictions we’ve seen. It’s rare for works of fiction to clearly identify mental disorders, and PTSD was specifically named as Jessica’s primary mental health problem in the series. Moreover, Jessica exhibited multiple DSM-5 PTSD symptoms, as well as associated distress and impairment, realistically across episodes. Finally, individuals with PTSD are at elevated risk for substance use disorders, and the series realistically displayed Jessica excessively using alcohol in an attempt to reduce the emotional pain she was experiencing.
2. Was the character struggling with mental health issues depicted with compassion?
The series reveals the events leading up to Jessica’s mental health problems in a manner that compels viewers to sympathize with her struggles. The writing and storytelling are superb, and Krysten Ritter is a phenomenal actress. Her portrayal of Jessica reflected a nuanced and complex understanding of PTSD. We believe that the series has the potential to help raise awareness about PTSD to broad audiences, which will hopefully lead to greater empathy for those suffering from it.
On a scale of be-cool-and-just-watch-one-episode-per-day to RESISTANCE-IS-FUTILE-JUST-SURRENDER-TO-THE-BINGE-WATCH, we rate the depiction of mental health issues in Jessica Jones as RESISTANCE-IS-FUTILE-JUST-SURRENDER-TO-THE-BINGE-WATCH!
For more information on PTSD, please visit the National Center for PTSD website by clicking here.