Science Isn't Golden

Matters of the mind and heart

Hollywood Insists on Calling Normal People Crazy

Two New Films Are Wrongly Advertised As Being About Mentally Ill People

Hollywood people do some great things, but sometimes they get it wrong. I saw two films lately -- "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Lincoln" -- that I thought hit the nail on the head about "mental illness," then was troubled to read descriptions of them in the Screen Actors Guild Awards blurbs in the publication Backstage.

"Silver Linings Playbook" is a joy to watch because of both the terrific acting and the story. At the beginning, I wasn't so sure. It starts with Bradley Cooper being released from a months-long stay in a mental hospital, where he has been diagnosed with "Bipolar Disorder." One of my areas of specialization is research methodology, and another is psychiatric diagnosis, so I have long known that "Bipolar Disorder" is a label without scientific validity or even reliability (that is, the same person will too rarely be given the same label by two different professionals), and I have long known how arbitrarily it can be applied to anyone who has, well, a mood, not just anything that might be considered a mood disorder. So I bristled when I heard the label used for his character. In the course of the film, without spoiling it for you if you have not yet seen it, suffice it to say that we learn that he committed an act of violence that was totally understandable, came from deep hurt and shock rather than some inexplicable "mental illness," and should by no stretch of the imagination have led to his being diagnosed with "Bipolar Disorder."

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We watch him talk about having a positive attitude toward making his life better, we see that he is quirky and loving and compassionate, and we see him refuse to take the hard drugs hospital staff had had him taking, because, as he says, they make him feel terrible, cloud his thinking, and make him feel exhausted. It's clear that he begins to thrive because of having a caring woman come into his life, developing some kind of relationship with her, coming to terms with members of his family who are in their own ways quite difficult and strange (makes you ask the important question of who should be called mentally ill and on what grounds), and becomes deeply involved in dancing. The one weird and troubling thing about the film is that -- out of nowhere -- when he is thriving, he speaks one line about taking his drugs. Did he suddenly start benefiting from them when they had only made him feel terrible before? Is the audience to disregard the whole, beautiful message from all of the rest of the film about the non-drug ways that people heal and even thrive? I have to wonder if the drug companies whose two drugs are mentioned twice by name in that film perhaps paid for "product placement," so that the line stayed in there despite the fact that it is unrelated to the rest of the script. Or did producers or lawyers worry that if they didn't include it, people who take those drugs would suddenly stop taking them altogether, thus putting them at risk for the horrible effects that too-sudden withdrawal from psychiatric drugs can cause?

The Screen Actors Guild Award blurb for Bradley Cooper's nominations for both Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro (who plays his father) refer to Cooper's character as "bipolar." The fact that the entire film (subtly but nevertheless clearly) calls into question the pathologizing of him has vanished. I can only sigh yet again, confronting for the zillionth time the power of psychiatric terminology to be the thing that people remember once a person has been labeled.

About "Lincoln," which also includes great acting from Daniel Day Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field but a script that is appalling for the way it renders totally invisible the crucial roles that women and people of color played in the outlawing of slavery, I want to address here another matter related to questions of mental illness. Much has been written about President Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, having allegedly been mentally ill. One of her sons died very young, and one of the ways she dealt with her bereavement was by attempting, like many people of her era, to contact her dead son through mediums and séances. Those attempts, combined with the intense grief she experienced -- and why on earth should that be pathologized? -- have been used to argue that she was mentally ill. I bit my lip to keep from cheering aloud when, in the film, Mary Todd Lincoln says to her husband that "All anyone will remember about me was that I was crazy and ruined your happiness," and he tells her she is not crazy. The Screen Actors Guild blurb about Sally Field's nomination as Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role quotes that line of Mary's but does not tell us what her husband replies, and it includes these words: "Field's revelatory performance redefines Lincoln's oft-mocked first lady as a woman who is also compassionate, strong, and yes, a little crazy." Nothing in the film shows her as anything that anyone ... well, anyone in their right mind ... would consider crazy, but oh my, let us not be too quick to depathologize a person, especially not a woman. And what mother who has lost a young child would not despair? We have to stop calling grief craziness.

To see brief videos of many people who, suffering because of troubling events in their lives, were called mentally ill and were devastated as a result, please see the series on YouTube called "Watch the Stories of Harm the APA Refused to Hear," and read more stories of harm at psychdiagnosis.weebly.com and psychdiagnosis.net For ways to stop this from happening, see How You Can Help at the first website and Six Solutions at the second.

©copyright 2013 by Paula J. Caplan                                 All rights reserved

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an Associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former Fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program. more...

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