East Asian Arch Psychiatry 2011;21:38


Movies and Mental Illness 3: Using Films to Understand Psychopathology (3rd edition)

Authors: Danny Wedding, Mary Ann Boyd, Ryan M. Niemiec
Hogrefe Publishing
USD40; pp352; ISBN 978-0-88937-371-6

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Film is a popular form of art, telling us stories about the joys and sorrows of man. We can hold our judgement for 2 hours as an audience member and identify with the emotional turmoils of the characters. This is why the authors of this book, cinephiles, as well as experienced clinicians and teachers in mental health, believe that “films are a powerful medium for teaching students, engaging patients, and educating the public about the fascinating world of psychopathology”.

The book was originally designed to supplement the core texts in abnormal psychology. Now in its third edition, it became a comprehensive teaching tool to engage students in discussion on a wide range of psychopathology. It was felt that “the richness and intensity of films cannot be simply captured by a classroom lecture or the printed page”.

The book is structured in 15 chapters according to the major categories of psychopathology. The reader is advised to approach the book via the appendix listing the films being discussed in each chapter. I was attracted to some films previously seen, but never thought of as having an association with mental illness. There are also some unseen films mentioned for which there is now a good reason to watch.

Opening the chapter on Schizophrenia and Delusional Disorders, it’s no surprise to find the familiar name of A Beautiful Mind, an Oscar-winning movie with Russell Crowe playing the role of Prof John Nash. Before introducing the plot of the film, the authors brainstorm us with questions, “Is there any relationship between John Nash’s mathematical genius and the course of his illness?” “Can mental health providers make accurate predictions about the likelihood of violence in people with mental illness?” These are followed by a fictitious case evaluation of John Nash, inviting the reader to think critically from a clinical perspective while watching the movie.

While the authors highly praised the film A Beautiful Mind as giving an accurate depiction of the challenges associated with the treatment and rehabilitation of a person with schizophrenia, they are also aware of some reinforcing stereotypes of mental illness. They particularly listed some horror movies that excelled in playing with the psychotic metaphor. “While entertaining for some, these films typically have nothing to do with any particular mental disorder, and they perpetuate the stigma associated with mental illness. The term psychotic is used to induce fear and suggest unpredictability.

Apart from demonstrating signs and symptoms of mental illness on the big screen, movies are also good at telling stories from the neglected minority. It is hard not to judge the outlaw behaviour of an adolescent with conduct disorder. Thus the authors invited us to watch some ‘extraordinarily disturbing films’ with patience, which would enable us to experience the thoughts and feelings of emotionally disturbed children in their specific social milieu. A less well-known film, The United States of Leland (2004), opened with a scene of the killing of an autistic child, and later explored the depressed murderer’s feelings. “There’s all this sadness and there’s nothing you can do about it, and all I wanted was for it to go away.”

While tuberculosis and cancer were popular themes in movies in the past, mental illness is frequently used as a metaphor nowadays. It should not be taken lightly that every movie could be a good illustration of psychopathology. Every scene and line are the results of the directors’ meticulous calculations of the audiences’ reactions and, to a certain extent, reflect our cultural values about mental illness. It takes the hard work of the authors to guide us through an extensive list of movies relevant to mental illness. They also provide useful material for class discussion in a user-friendly structure.

Ming-Chung Lee, MBBS (marshallmclee@gmail.com)
Department of Psychiatry
Tai Po Hospital
Tai Po, New Territories
Hong Kong SAR, China

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