Silver Linings Playbook: The good and the bad

There are loads of movies out there where mental illness is a central theme. The messages portrayed about psychological/psychiatric problems via this medium can be very influential given the shear numbers of potential viewers. Taken together, movies tackling mental health issues are a tangled mixture of accuracy, fallacy, positivity and detrimentality (I don't care if that's not a real word, I think its cleverer than negativity...). I know full well that movies are primarily about entertainment. The primary mission is to make money and not to provide a public health service. But, given the impact of the big screen, my opinion is that it can be constructive and helpful to talk about what messages movie makers deliver to us, the public.

 

Synopsis

'Pat' has bipolar disorder and is released from an inpatient psychiatric facility into his parent's care following a incident where he serious beat a man he caught in the shower with his wife (the wife is pretty easy on they eye, but that's incidental detail I 'spose). Pat meets Tiffany, recently widowed and highly fragile/volatile, who convinces Pat to train for a dance competition. The story develops and captures several issues/challenges related to both character's lives (e.g., conflict in the family, lack of acknowledgement/awareness of mental illness, public attitudes towards mental illness). For more, see the movie's wikipedia entry

 

Jason's list of good points

Ok, here are some things I thought were positives:

  • I thought the movie did quite a good job of conveying the potentially massive and widespread effect of serious mental illness. I have seen many people diagnosed with serious illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia who's pre-illness lives have been wiped out. Jobs can be lost, friends can leave the scene, family problems may develop, physical health can deteriorate; the list goes on. This is not the case for everyone though. The severity and pervasiveness of negative effects exist very much on continuum. Recovery is hampered the more 'normal' day-to-day' life has been disrupted. In the movie, Pat is living back with his parents, is not working and experiences negative attitudes from others about mental illness. As if the diagnosis wasn't a big enough kick in the teeth. All these 'secondary' effects can make recovery that much more challenging. People diagnosed with serious mental illness needs loads of support and it is important to remember that the diagnosis itself is most often not the only challenge being faced.
  • I quite liked the way the movie presented Pat's family as far from perfect. While his parents were generally supportive, there were still incidents where his Dad said some pretty dumb things. Relatives also made some equally dumb comments. Recovery takes place in an imperfect world. There are both well-meaning and malevolent people who say and do unhelpful things. Sometimes, what might seem like sage advice can have the opposite effect. For instance, if a person's sleep is seriously messed up, taking naps during the day may not help the situation (e.g., can throw the body clock out of sync even further). Always a good idea to take some professional advice around supporting people with mental illness.
  • Pat (reluctantly) undertook talking therapy and a medication regime to manage his illness.  But, he also went running regularly and became involved in learning to dance. This is a great demonstration of how we can think about 'treatment' in a broad sense. Professional help is critical. But looking at health and lifestyle from a wide perspective is really important. The body and mind are highly interconnected. Activities such as physical exercise, eating healthy food (with the odd cookie exception), connecting with people, taking up an interest/hobby are examples of other things people can get involved with. 

 

Jason's list of bad points

From smiley face to frowny face, here are a few of the not-so-good points:

  • In the movie, Pat unexpectedly meets his therapist at a football game. The therapist says that, at that moment, they are fellow fans, not therapist-client. They basically party together and dance in that especially contorted way that only drunk men can dance. While this sounds great in principle, the reality is that the relationship between professional therapist and client is one that needs to be carefully managed. Each party needs to know the boundaries of the relationship. What would happen if you're mates one day, then the next day the therapist wants to hospitalise the client because he/she has become a serious threat to themselves (or others)? The client could easily feel betrayed. If the professional relationship boundaries are blurred, confusion may develop, for example, between what should/should not be discussed, when contact is made between the two, and so on. Basically, if the relationship is not clearly professional, you run the risk of creating messy situations.
  • Spoiler alert.....The movie ends happily with the two main characters hooking up in a warm 'we're totally in-love and everything is going to be fine now' bliss. Ok, I know this is the Hollywood formula, but there is no silver bullet solution to mental health problems. Managing mental illness (as with maintaining a healthy relationship) takes support, time, effort, mistakes and learning (amongst other things). Don't get sucked into the notion that recovery/treatment will occur simply through the formation of a relationship, an epiphany, or any other warm 'ah-ha' moment. I would LOVE to tell you that it is this simple for people. Bottom line is that people can achieve great things, but only through hard work and persistence. 
  • Pat tends to be viewed as pretty odd, especially early in the movie (e.g., wears a rubbish bag when jogging, running around the house freaking out in the middle of the night). Such oddball behaviour is not prerequisite for mental illness. The non-diagnosed amongst us are just as quirky as everyone else. Yes, some psychiatric disorders are associated with unusual, odd or even bizarre behaviour. But many do not, and there is often no outward sign of difficulty.
  • A story where a man successfully learns to dance is never helpful for boys such as myself who move as gracefully as a heavily intoxicated three-legged rhino not wearing his/her contact lenses. Sort it out Hollywood. Let's see dancing dyslexia portrayed as far more socially acceptable.

 

Wrap-up

I could go on a lot longer, but I'm sure you've been inspired to immediately sign-up for a dance class. My take-home message is that the portrayal of mental illness in the movies (and mass media) is a double-edged sword. Sometimes good and accurate, sometimes further off the mark than bald men with ponytails. Don't rely on movies as your source of mental health literacy. Talk to people who work in this area instead.

Jason.

 

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