Psychology of Assault on Arkham Harley Quinn's Mental Health

Since Batman: The Animated Series for which she was created, Harley Quinn has been a pretty popular character from the DC Universe, and is becoming even more mainstream and popular with the new Suicide Squad live-action film coming out later this year. Harley Quinn comes up a lot in discussions on “psychology of superheroes,” especially concerning a determination of her mental health diagnosis.

First of all, I don’t like assuming that criminals or super villains in comic books have some sort of mental disorder. To me, this equates mental illness with evil and crime, and that’s a stereotype I certainly do not want to perpetuate.

But Batman villains, especially Harley Quinn and the Joker, are constantly referred to as “crazy,” “insane,” or “psychotic,” without those terms necessarily being explained or used correctly (“crazy” has no real meaning and is actually pretty offensive). During Assault on Arkham, even Harley calls herself “crazy.”

Since Harley Quinn’s mental health status is continually brought up and questioned, let’s talk about it by breaking down and analyzing her behavior in Batman: Assault on Arkham.


Perhaps her most defining characteristic, Harley displays unexpected and erratic behavior. For example, throughout the movie, Harley sticks out her tongue at other suicide squad members or busts out an impromptu cartwheel. Her behavior, speech, and mannerisms appear somewhat childlike and playful. She makes jokes, laughs, and exhibits a sense of humor. Batman at one point describes Harley as “odd.”

As soon as she meets him, Harley begins flirting with Deadshot, who grows to become the “leader” of the squad. She does not show this same flirtatious behavior toward any of the other men (or women) in the squad. Despite his continued rejection, Harley eventually shows up naked in Deadshot’s bed.

As soon as Amanda Waller outlines the mission, Harley volunteers immediately to go into the suicide mission at Arkham Asylum. Laughing gleefully, she readily jumps into a fight. She appeared to enjoy freefalling in a crate dropped from a plane. She crashes, but responds to her team members, “Don’t worry! I landed on my head.” Near the end of the film, Harley undergoes electroshock therapy and enjoys it, calling out afterwards “I feel great!”

Based on these behaviors, Harley seems to have an affinity for pain. She does, however, seem to have natural fear of death and worries that Waller will follow through on her threat to blow any of their brains up.

Harley is also violent and explosive. Early in the movie, Harley bit off a woman’s ear in response to the woman taking away her cartoons. She also exhibits signs of impulsivity, for example, when she breaks from the mission and shoots at the Joker when he taunts her.

Obviously, as a comic villain, Harley also exhibits criminal behavior. In the movie, Harley never shows remorse for any of these violent or anti-social actions.

Anyone familiar with Harley knows about her on-and-off abusive relationship with the Joker. At the beginning of the movie, she refers to the Joker as a “jerk” and insists, “We’re through!” In tears, she actually blames Batman for her abuse: “You’re the one always hurting me…so I’m gonna hurt you!” Despite the abuse, Harley either plans an elaborate escape plan for the Joker or, upon his escape and perceived “win,” manipulates the Joker to take her back.

Harley does not appear to have any cognitive impairment. She follows through with given directions. She remembers details of Arkham Asylum. She also does not exhibit any signs of hallucinations or delusions.


Four different possible diagnoses jump out at me. When people use the term “psychotic,” as they do frequently with Harley, I think schizophrenia, because it’s the most prominent of the psychotic disorders in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition—the bible of mental disorders).
Basically, if someone is psychotic, or more correctly, is having a psychotic episode, that person is experiencing delusions (false beliefs), hallucinations (false sensations/perceptions), and/or disorganized thinking. As Harley’s clinician, however, I would rule out schizophrenia, or any of the psychotic disorders, because she lacks any evidence of any one of these crucial criteria.

Next I think Bipolar I or II Disorders, characterized by manic and hypomanic episodes. According to the DSM-5, a manic episode is “a distinct period of abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood” – that sounds like Harley – “and abnormally and persistently increased goal-directed activity or energy.”

Then the DSM-5 lists a bunch of symptoms and notes that the client would need to exhibit three and show “a noticeable change from usual behavior.” The only symptom Harley definitely shows is engagement in activities that have a high potential for painful consequences. In addition, Harley’s behavior in Assault on Arkham APPEARS to be her usual behavior, not a deviation from her norm. So this rules out bipolar disorder.

A personality disorder is possible for Harley, but difficult to determine, just based on the short time a film covers. Borderline Personality Disorder is a possibility. Again, the DSM lists a number of possible symptoms and stipulates that the client has to exhibit 5 of them for the diagnosis. Harley does for sure show a few: efforts to avoid abandonment, unstable personal relationships, impulsivity in dangerous areas, and inappropriate anger. But again, without knowing more about Harley, she doesn’t meet enough of the symptoms to warrant a diagnosis.

Lastly, because of Harley’s criminal and violent behavior and especially because of her lack of remorse, I’m thinking Anti-Social Personality Disorder as a potential diagnosis. Harley meets more than the necessary criteria for this diagnosis – repeated criminal acts, deceitfulness, impulsivity, irritability, disregard for safety, lack of remorse – if she also exhibited these behaviors since she was 15. Assault on Arkham doesn’t address Harley’s childhood, so I can’t assume.

As it stands, I couldn’t in good faith give Harley a diagnosis without more information about her than just what Batman: Assault on Arkham gives. And again, I’m not completely convinced her behavior stems from any mental health issue instead of just her choice to be a criminal.
Created By
Heather Ness


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