Gary Newsome

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — People lined up and the smell of popcorn filled the air, as students got ready for another movie night at Winthrop University.

However, this night was about more than entertainment, as the DiGiorgio Student Union (DSU) screened the film “Joker,” which was followed by a panel discussion on mental health.

The university approved cultural event, Feb. 1 at Dina’s Place, drew roughly 150 people.

When “Joker” was released in October, it quickly became the highest grossing R rated film of all time, making more than $258 million in just 21 days.

The popularity of the film also led people to start discussions about mental illness and its portrayal in the film.

The event featured three panelists who spoke about their experiences with mental illness after the film.

The panel was moderated by Jess Hudgens, a counseling services staff member at Winthrop, who stood ready during the screening to talk with students who may have found the film too intense or disturbing for them to handle.

Joker screening 4
Jess Hudgens, from Winthrop counseling services, moderates a panel discussion on mental health after the DSU screening of the film “Joker” Feb. 1 (photo: Gary Newsome).

During the discussion, Hudgens asked the panelists a number of questions, using a PowerPoint presentation, ranging from how the film links violence and mental illness and how childhood trauma affects mental health.

Panelist Cicely Gadson said she believes the film affirmed that the media often portrays mental illness as something that leads to violence.

“The aspect of access of medication that was discussed in the film; he did some pretty crappy things but not before he was off his medication and I think that was one of the main things that the film was trying to get across,” said Gadson.

Panelist Rodney Gibson said the film shows how a lack of support for Joker, who struggles with mental illness, contributed to his actions.

Gibson said he wanted to be on the panel, because he struggles with depression, which is often something people don’t want to talk about.

He said he thinks the film was also chosen, because it offers a realistic portrayal of mental illness.

Panelist Ashleigh Scopio said she thinks the film shows that if a person doesn’t have a team of support behind them, when their mental health is already declining, things will just get worse if the person doesn’t seek help.

Scopio said she wanted to be on the panel, because she loves talking about mental health and keeping others educated on the topic.

The panelists also discussed the impact of trauma on mental health, which Gibson said the film shows how trauma can be lasting.

“I know there are people out in the world who think ‘Oh, it happened in the past, so you should get over it.’ I’ve been through stuff growing up as well and still go through stuff and you would not believe the number of times people just tell me it’s in the past,” said Gibson.

Some of the panelists said trauma can rewire a person’s brain and affect how they perceive life events as they get older.

Joker panelists
Cicely Gadson (Left), Ashleigh Scopio (center) and Rodney Gibson served as panelists during a discussion about mental health, following the screening of the film “Joker” (photo: Gary Newsome).

Scopio said childhood relationships, between family and friends, can serve as building blocks that can help determine who you grow up to be.

“Going through any trauma when you are young or when you’re a child, that can really kind of damage who you can be growing up, especially if you don’t get therapy for it, to move on past it and kind of cope with whatever you’re going through,” said Scopio.

She said she hopes the film helps people get motivated to educate themselves and continue conversations about mental illness, which could ultimately help other people.

One student asked the panelists how people can try to gain a better understanding of mental illness and Scopio said researching online resources would be a good start.

She mentioned a blog called “The Mighty,” which tries to educate readers about the experiences of people with mental illness.

Gibson said individuals should talk to other people and “be an open ear.” He also said it’s always okay to encourage people to seek professional help.

Gadson said the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), where she is currently interning, is an organization that offers classes and online resources to help people understand mental illness.

The next Winthrop DSU movie night will feature the film “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 7 p.m.

The film stars Oprah Winfrey as an African American woman who helps pioneer a medical breakthrough after her cells are used to create the first immortal human cell line in the 1950s, which changed the course of cancer treatment.

The event is free and is sponsored by the Winthrop biology department.