Hollywood Takes on Mental Illness

“Silver Linings Playbook” gains critical acclaim and sparks controversy for its portrayal of mental illness

In Hollywood’s latest critical darling to hit the big screen, “Silver Linings Playbook” takes on mental illness and weaves a tale that keeps audiences engaged with the story and rooting for the characters to find their long-awaited happy ending. However, while the film has garnered much critical acclaim, including a Golden Globe for lead actress Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar nominations for Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as well as Best Picture, it has sparked immense controversy among psychology circles that question the accuracy of the movie’s portrayal of mental illness. 

Film portrayals of mental illness are challenging for film-makers, suggests Dr. Nicholas R. Santilli, Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs and Professor of Psychology at Notre Dame College.

“Screenwriters are in a difficult position when determining how to honestly portray a character suffering from mental illness while crafting a believable character that does not present a clichéd, stereotype of someone suffering a mental disorder,” said Dr. Santilli.

Behind Bipolar

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 6 million Americans are affected by bipolar disorder annually. People diagnosed with bipolar disorder suffer from abnormally elevated mood states, which can interfere with the functions of ordinary life. Most psychologists refer to bipolar disorder as a sine wave of ups and downs resulting in manic highs to depressed lows.

Mania is often a defining feature of bipolar disorder and is characterized by a state of high-energy that can result in heightened levels of euphoria and creativity as well as erratic and dangerous behaviors. Mania is often coupled with depressive episodes that bring persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety and isolation; symptoms may continue for weeks or even months if left untreated. Severe cases of depression may include delusions or hallucinations.

While mania is often the defining feature of bipolar disorder, depressive episodes are more readily identifiable, leaving many people misdiagnosed with major depression. However, once diagnosed correctly, bipolar disorder can be treated with a number of pharmacological and psychotherapeutic techniques, and people can go on to live healthy and normal lives.

Mental Health on the Big Screen

mental health psychology

Source: film.com

In “Silver Linings Playbook,” Cooper plays the role of Pat Solitano, Jr.—a substitute history teacher with bipolar disorder. The audience is first introduced to Pat as a patient at a mental health facility and, after some plot work, comes to realize he had been ordered to the facility after a violent attack against his wife’s lover. Upon his release, Pat goes to live with his parents where he is determined to win his wife back through a strict exercise regime and by reading all of the books listed on her high school English syllabus. Throughout the course of the movie, audiences see he is motivated by the idea of reuniting with his wife. At this point, the movie introduces viewers to Pat’s family, including his father, played by Robert De Niro, who audiences come to believe has obsessive-compulsive disorder and a gambling addiction. Later in the film, Pat is introduced to and connects with a woman, Tiffany, played by Lawrence, who appears to be battling her own mental demons, although her exact diagnosis is never revealed. Together, through a mix of follies and setbacks as well as triumphs, the unlikely pair helps each other find resolution and falls in love.

Cooper’s portrayal of a man battling bipolar disorder has come under fire from critics who argue the character’s initial refusal to take medication sends the wrong message to the public and stigmatizes medication use to control mental health issues. Pat’s on screen behaviors as a diagnosed bipolar patient have also been questioned by psychologists who feel the character’s symptoms lack authenticity. Throughout the movie, Pat displays several incidences of mania, which is, in fact, a symptom of bipolar disorder. He is restless, grandiose and has pressured speech. However, he is never shown in moments of depression, which is also a common state for people with bipolar disorder.

Nevertheless, not all psychologists are critics of the film or Cooper’s portrayal of the lead character. Dr. Michael Blumenfield, president of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, said in an interview with Medscape Medical News that Pat wasn’t the typical bipolar patient but rather a complex character that had been traumatized by an experience in his life.

“Some people have bipolar and don’t have depression at all,” Blumenfield said. “The film wasn’t necessarily saying, ‘This is exactly what bipolar is like.’ I think the movie showed the complexities of disorders and also showed how traumatic events can affect people.”

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