Science Isn't Golden

Matters of the mind and heart

What Is Mental Illness Anyway? Troubling Coopers Interview

Anderson and Bradley Cooper Undo Some of the Good of "Silver Linings Playbook"

Recently, I wrote here in praise of the film, "Silver Linings Playbook." Early on, Bradley Cooper's character emerges from a hospital where he had been confined and put on three powerful and dangerous psychiatric drugs after being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. The audience is thereby set to believe he is mentally ill, which usually means "different from us." But in the course of the film we learn about what led to the understandable act of violence he committed as a result of suddenly discovering he had been betrayed by his wife. "Hm," we think, "they called him 'mentally ill' because of that?" He remarks that he stopped taking the three drugs, because he hated the way they made him feel and made it hard for him to function.

He seems even more like the rest of us as the movie goes on, and we see him feeling increasingly happy and at peace as a result of (1)deciding to try to look on the positive side of life; (2)finding ways to connect with his sometimes difficult family members whom he, however, loves and wants to be close to; (3)learning and loving ballroom dancing; and (4)developing a friendship and then a loving relationship with a wonderful woman. Now, we think, "Those seem like great, healthy ways to get over the grief and rage about having been betrayed. None of that seems to have much to do with mental illness, which most people consider a medical condition resulting from a brain defect, a chemical imbalance, or a genetic 'mistake.'"

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The one sentence that stands out like a sore thumb is that, partway through his clearly feeling much better, he suddenly says he is taking the three drugs, and he names them. That is so inconsistent with everything else about the film that I wondered whether the drug companies paid to get that line in.

Now there arrives in my email a recommendation to look at a five-minute interview CNN's Anderson Cooper, often an intelligent, perceptive, caring interviewer, did with Bradley Cooper as the latter prepared to attend a meeting at the White House with Vice President Joseph Biden (http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/bestoftv/2013/02/15/ac-anderson-...). That interview both undoes a lot of the good done by the film and exemplifies the terribly confused thinking of many intelligent people when the subject is "mental illness." The actor describes having connected with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who, he says, "is Bipolar" just like the character he plays in the film. Wait a minute! I thought (as did everyone I know who saw the movie) it was clear that he was not mentally ill, just having an understandable human reaction to a horrible experience and then recovering in ways that have nothing to do with the medicalized approaches that are usually recommended these days for people who are given psychiatric diagnoses.

Here is where the confusion appears: Bradley Cooper describes having visited patients at Walter Reed Hospital and talks about how, whether for veterans or others, we need to remove the stigma of mental illness, because "it's situational." Sigh. His intentions are clearly good. He wants people to understand that what happens to us -- betrayal by a spouse or the trauma of war, for instance -- can be deeply disturbing, yes, situational. But at the same time, he believes that these totally comprehensible, even, one might say, appropriate or "normal" responses are mental illnesses. Then isn't every human being who has lived through an upsetting experience mentally ill? And how does that fit with the very popular notion that everything called a mental illness is a medical condition?

The interview also includes the requisite statement about how we really need to get rid of the stigma attached to mental illness. As the great journalist Ethan Watters has reported in his pathbreaking New York Times Magazine story, "The Americanization of Mental Illness" (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/magazine/10psyche-t.html?pagewa...), antistigma campaigns have been shown to increase stigma. That seems to be at least in part because the message people take from such campaigns is that although these people are very different from you and me, it's really not fair to think they are inferior to us. We live in a world in which "different" is easily taken to mean "inferior." So I must confess that my skin crawls every time I notice that the same people who are promoting the labeling of a wide array of ordinary human feelings and responses as mental illness then act as though they are not causing harm and that what really causes the harm are those (presumably) others who insist on looking down on those who are classified as "different."

What is known to promote healing from emotional suffering is not the medicalizing ofhuman emotions and reactions, not looking to classify people as mentally ill and thus as "other," but instead looking for commonalities between oneself and them, trying to understand, seeking ways to connect.

©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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