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Psychology of Supernatural: The Mark of Cain and Depression

June 1, 2015

At some point in the past ten years you might have heard of a TV show on the CW called Supernatural. It's a show about two brothers who spend their time saving people and hunting things. It's the family business. Just having finished their 10th season, the show seems to be gaining more and more power. And what's not to love? This show has it all! Monsters, demons, angels, heroes, family issues, alternate realities, realities within realities, time traveling, and so much more, wrapped up in action and an abundance of BM ("boy melodrama") scenes that tug at your heartstrings and make you feel ALL the feels. Anger, happiness, sadness, joy, fear, hope, loss, grief, hopelessness, nostalgia... Supernatural fans have experienced all these and more along with the characters, sometimes within a single episode! Shall I even mention actor Jensen Ackles' (Dean Winchester) ability to elicit emotions from the depths of the viewers' hearts with just a single tear?

It's not just the writing and the acting that makes this show so great, but also the way that the creators of the show have an ability to truly connect with their viewers. From the 200th episode and tribute to the fans, "Fan Fiction," to actor Misha Collins (who plays the angel Castiel) personally giving coffee to fans at San Diego Comic Con, the actions of those involved in creating the show make the fans feel appreciated (except when they decide to off our favorite characters).

I got coffee from Misha. He's so nice! (That's not my hand).
The actors have also been known to give back to the community. In 2009, actor Misha Collins started Random Acts, a non-profit organization which aims to "conquer to world, one random act of kindness at a time." In March 2015, Jared Padalecki, who has helped raise funds for several organizations in the past, set up a fundraising event for To Write Love On Her Arms. In April 2015, he and Jensen Ackles set up a fundraiser to raise mental health awareness through their Always Keep Fighting campaign.

There is so much rich content that can be looked at from a psychological perspective about the story of these two brothers and the people who love them. In this post, I am focusing on season 10 and Dean's journey. So, I suppose I should warn you now, there are SPOILERS ahead. I should also specify that these are my own personal observations, but having a background in psychology does not make my interpretation "right" or "better." I am also just a fangirl :).

Season 10 overall felt like a journey for many of the characters. Crowley finds his mother and to some extent resolves some childhood issues, Sam arrives at the conclusion that despite what he has said in the past he truly would do anything to save his brother, Castiel grows by integrating more human traits, and Charlie gets her quest. For Dean, the journey started in a very dark place. I see many similarities between Dean's journey and depression.

Depression does not look the same for everybody, but many symptoms do tend to be the same. When someone is depressed, he or she:
  • Tends to isolate
  • Loses interest or motivation to engage in things he or she usually likes
  • There are disruptions in sleep (whether it's too much or too little)
  • May feel irritable or agitated
  • May feel fatigued much of the time
  • Feels sad for much of the day nearly every day
  • Has difficulty experiencing a variety of emotions
  • Not all, but some people lash out at loved ones and then experience a feeling of guilt about it 
  • Some people try to cope by turning to substances or self harm
  • Some people may try to commit suicide
When people are experiencing depression they no longer experience the world the same way. It is like looking at the world through a filter: the things that usually bring joy are filtered out. When you look at life through the filter of depression, you are left with the negative thoughts about yourself, those around you, and life in general, and it becomes a struggle just to get up in the morning. People who are depressed do not benefit from others telling them to get over it, or to stop feeling sad, or to "look on the bright side." That is not helpful and is not what they need. What they are experiencing is due to a chemical imbalance, and they would benefit more from others accepting them, trying to understand that they did not choose to see the world through that lens, and medical intervention.

In the beginning of season 10, Dean has clearly undergone many changes and is no longer the same person. He has been away from his brother for weeks, and has been ignoring his calls. He no longer hunts. He no longer savors his burgers or pies. His routine appears to be monotonous: he hangs out at a bar all day, drinks, gets in fights, spends the night with a girl, and then does the same thing the following day. He has turned to Crowley for companionship, but does not appear to see him as a friend. Rather, it seems he sees Crowley as the only being who truly understands what he has become, as he too is undergoing some emotional changes. When Sam eventually finds and takes him, Dean attacks him multiple times. It takes Castiel to finally subdue Dean. With his help they perform an intervention, and the old Dean returns.

After this, the brothers take a break, a sort of "leave of absence" from their work. Dean seems to be experiencing a sense of guilt and shame, as well as some level of denial that he needs help. I see this as symbolic of depression because it is sometimes hard for people to ask for help, especially for men. There are still in existence strong stigmas about men and emotions, which makes it harder for men to feel comfortable enough to seek help for a psychiatric condition. Statements like "man up" imply lesser masculinity if one asks for help. Men who struggle with depression often do so in silence, and they are more likely than women to die from suicide.

For most of the season, Dean insists that he is fine when his loved ones can see that he is not. The Mark of Cain, much like depression, takes a huge toll on Dean and interferes with his functioning in several areas. Even though he is no longer "Deanmon", his overall behavior is different. He still doesn't seem to take pleasure in the things that usually made him happy before, including pies, burgers, the ladies, or his favorite magazines. He tries dating through a dating app but it doesn't work out, and he doesn't seem to take interest in pursuing dating again. Throughout the season, Dean also begins to see his drinking as a problem, because he knows he no longer uses alcohol for the same purposes, and he tries to change his eating habits.

He is also unable to adequately perform his job, because although the Mark of Cain makes him somewhat better at it, it impairs his judgment to the point where he doesn't know when to stop. During one such incident, he beat up "Dark Charlie" beyond the point of defeat, which caused unnecessary harm upon Charlie. Dean is unable to forgive himself for this. He begins to isolate in the bunker. Although he increasingly feels hopeless, he does experience some moments that may symbolize hope. He witnesses Cain being unable to break free from his curse, but he also sees Charlie be able to reconcile with her darker self, and sees Cole successfully fight the parasite that takes control of his body. This is very significant, as it presents Dean with two possibilities, two different paths he will be faced with in his own healing journey.

As Dean falls deeper and deeper into his curse, Sam becomes more obstinate in his desperation in finding a cure regardless of the consequences and regardless of Dean's wishes. Sam's actions could be similar to what some people do when a loved one is depressed. He looks for help everywhere and is willing to try anything. However, he becomes so desperate that he is unable to listen to Dean or to be there for him. Sam begins to take trips by himself, leaving a suspicious Dean behind. Multiple times, Dean tells Sam that he does not want the curse removed by using the Book of the Damned. Trying to force an intervention that Dean has already declined is the opposite of being there and communicating with his brother, and eventually leads to tragedy.

Things come to a cusp when Dean begins to behave more unlike himself, engaging in risky behaviors and beginning to prepare for death. He abandons his most precious possession, his Chevy Impala, and summons Death, who tells Dean that though he cannot kill him, he can place him somewhere where he would no longer be a danger to himself or others (a supernatural 5150?).

The moment that Sam truly joins Dean and truly listens to him is the moment that he finally breaks through to him. This, to me, also had parallels with depression. When someone is depressed, perhaps being truly there for them, truly present with them is the most meaningful thing a loved one can do.


Click here for info on helping a loved one with depression.

Find out more about To Write Love On Her Arms, non-profit organization that raises awareness of mental health disorders and recovery.

See National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for additional help.

For teens: for help in San Diego, CA, see Peer2Peer.

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