‘Tiger King’ Characters Finally Address Their Mental Health

Full of drama and trauma, the hit Netflix docuseries took a toll on the mental health of those involved

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
April 13, 2020

This contains mild spoilers for “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” as well as the follow-up episode “The Tiger King & I.” 

Being cooped up at home for the past few weeks thanks to the coronavirus outbreak means that some people have had more time than usual to fire up Netflix and get sucked into their latest true crime docuseries. We’re talking, of course, about “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” which tells the story of Joe Exotic, the former owner of a private zoo in Oklahoma, and other prominent and colorful characters involved in the exotic animals business. 

In its first 10 days on Netflix, 34 million people streamed the seven-part docuseries. Though these episodes showcased a series of significant traumatic events, at no point did any of the characters address their mental health, or whether or not they received any form of treatment. There was plenty of discussion about the literal loss of life and limb, but there wasn’t much talk of the signs of depression, anxiety, narcissism and other mental illnesses in Exotic or the other characters.

Fortunately, the follow-up episode, “The Tiger King & I,” which premiered on Netflix on April 12, 2020, addressed mental health head-on, adding a much-needed piece to the “Tiger King” puzzle.

Viewers were finally able to see these characters reflect on their mental well-being and, in some cases, realize that they needed to seek some form of treatment. Here’s how three characters from “Tiger King” dealt with their mental health during and after the series of events covered in the docuseries. 

Joe Exotic

As the primary subject of “Tiger King,” Exotic had plenty of screen time, highlighting his highs and lows over the past several years. For example, since the show first aired, some have pointed to his inflated sense of self-esteem and importance as a potential sign of narcissism. “Narcissists are preoccupied with power and success — since as a child, their success brought them love,” Dr. Lindsay Weisner , a clinical psychologist recently wrote in Psychology Today. “They are entitled and arrogant and think nothing of taking advantage of other people, since they believe that their own uniqueness puts them at an intellectual level that is only truly understood by other, fantastic people.”

In addition to that, Exotic experienced intense grief following the death of his husband Travis. This included common symptoms of grief like numbness, sadness, anger and fear. Joshua Dial, who was Exotic’s campaign manager when he ran for governor of Oklahoma, addressed Exotic’s mental health after Travis died by suicide: “What Joe did was he spoke to a shaman…I felt like it worsened his condition. I’m all for holistic approaches, but sometimes you need real legitimate counseling and medication. He wasn’t getting it.” Exotic is currently serving a 22-year sentence in federal prison, and it’s unclear whether he is receiving therapy, antidepressants or other medication while he’s incarcerated. 

Joshua Dial

Along the same lines, Dial also spoke openly about his own struggles with mental health since working for Exotic. As the only person in the room when another character took his own life, Dial witnessed the tragic event firsthand — something that could have resulted in developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD “is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it.” It is frequently accompanied by depression and anxiety. Recognizing the signs of mental distress, Dial told McHale that he was actively seeking help through a fundraising campaign to pay for his counseling and medication. 

Rick Kirkham

One of the first people we meet at the beginning of “Tiger King” is Rick Kirkham, the reality show producer who moved into the zoo to direct Exotic’s web series. In the follow-up episode, he revealed that Exotic had a phobia of big cats — something that was not shown in the docuseries — and clearly contradicts his public persona. Though he didn’t get into further details, it’s hard to imagine how Exotic functioned for so many years, despite experiencing high levels of anxiety being around tigers and other large animals all the time.

As far as his own mental health, unlike Dial, Kirkham did have the opportunity to go to therapy after his surreal ordeal with Exotic, the New York Times reports. But that hasn’t stopped him from having flashback nightmares about his former life at Exotic’s zoo. “I will never get over…I still have nightmares, Joel,” Kirkham told McHale in the follow-up episode. “I still have nightmares today. I had nightmares last night. And since this docuseries has been back, I’ve had more nightmares about having lived on that park. I want to put this chapter away, but it keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger.” 

Though Kirkland didn’t discuss a diagnosis in the show, intrusive memories — including upsetting nightmares about a traumatic event — is one of the signs of PTSD. As far as treatments for PTSD, the Mayo Clinic recommends speaking with your doctor and a mental health practitioner about options including psychotherapy and medication. Specifically, patients have found cognitive therapy, exposure therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to be helpful in treating PTSD. 

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.

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This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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