Psychology in Film: Different Viewing Angles

Psychology in Film: Different Viewing Angles

Brooke J. Cannon, Ph.D.
(From the Turkish electronic publication Psinema 2008 Issue 1.)

Popular films allow us to visit foreign lands, to experience alien worlds, to witness prehistoric animal behavior, and to take a flight of imagination.  Movies also teach us about historical events, about sociopolitical issues, and about the plights of mankind, such as a struggle with mental illness.  Just as most people will never personally experience space travel, but can take a virtual ride through the magic of cinema, many will have their only significant exposure to psychopathology through characters in the movies.  Take, for example, these winners of the American Academy Award for Best Actor/Actress:  Jack Nicholson portraying Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in As Good As It Gets; Geoffrey Rush portraying Schizophrenia in Shine; Dustin Hoffman portraying Autism in Rain Man; Hillary Swank portraying Gender Identity Disorder in Boys Don’t Cry; and, Nicole Kidman portraying depression in The Hours.  Not all films, however, depict mental illness with accuracy and sensitivity.  Similarly, the professional practice and ethics of psychologists often are misrepresented.

It is a common practice for those teaching courses about psychopathology, particularly at the undergraduate level, to incorporate films into their teaching, often assigning a movie critique as part of the course.  My website,, is frequently visited by students searching for movies to fulfill such assignments, as it lists recommended movies related to psychology.  The site was developed initially for my own students, as I often reference movies in my lectures on psychopathology.  Through the years, I have incorporated movies into my teaching in various ways, approaching the films from different viewing angles.

Perpetuation of Stigma – The perpetuation of stigma associated with mental illness is a common complaint about popular films.  Many horror films utilize the concept of the “insane asylum” and the “madman.”  Dissociative Identity Disorder is repeatedly misrepresented, such as in an attempt at humor in Me, Myself, and Irene, or for plot twists, as in Identity.  In the 1960s, Shock Corridor included the concept of mentally ill women becoming nymphomaniacs and Lilith promoted the theory that schizophrenia can be transmitted through blood.  To address the concept of stigma, students can be asked to identify the false statements in the film, as well as to consider the effect the film has on public attitudes about mental illness.  Reading some of Thomas Szasz’s theories on the “myth of mental illness” would further the consideration of stigma.

Attitude Change – Film can be a very powerful tool for attitude change.  For example, The Woodsman is an excellent movie about a man re-entering society after having been in prison for child sexual abuse.  Most viewers find themselves having a different perspective on pedophilia after watching this film.  Similarly, Boys Don’t Cry effectively humanizes gender identity disorder.  To utilize this approach in a classroom, students might be asked about their views of pedophiles before and after viewing The Woodsman, and about gender identity disorder before and after watching Boys Don’t Cry

Accuracy of Portrayal – My students are required to learn the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV-Text Revision’s diagnostic criteria.  A film assignment might entail their watching a film and applying these criteria to the film characters.  In some cases, the character’s disorder is identified, such as in A Beautiful Mind, whereas in other cases the student must determine the best diagnosis according to the behaviors displayed in the film.  For example, the Australian film An Angel at My Table depicts inappropriate treatment resulting from a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia; students might be asked to determine the appropriate diagnosis.  Efforts to depict mental illness accurately are becoming more common.  Often the “bonus features” available on a DVD include interviews with the film’s director and actors about the making of the movie.  When making the film The Aviator, for example, Leonardo DiCaprio spent time with a man who had obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Similarly, significant information was gathered from observing people with mental retardation in order to prepare for filming I Am Sam.    

Compare and Contrast – Viewing more than one movie depicting the same disorder is an interesting way to consider the varying presentations of psychopathology, as well as the differences in the portrayal of mental illness by screenwriters and directors.  The depiction of schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind, for example, has been criticized as being inaccurate, particularly as the hallucinations are predominantly visual.  This might be compared to the independent film Clean, Shaven which illustrates auditory hallucinations quite effectively.  The various types and stages of schizophrenic disorders can be explored.  Revolution #9 is a terrific film portraying the acute onset of paranoid schizophrenia.  Spider, in contrast, illustrates chronic schizophrenia.  Shine allows for consideration of schizoaffective disorder.

Historical Context – Various films may be useful when teaching about the history of mental illness treatment.  The classic movie Bedlam illustrates the inhumane treatment of the severely mentally ill during the 18th century in England, which may be contrasted with treatment of the upper class’s depression during the same era by “cupping” in Dangerous Liaisons.  The Snake Pit portrays treatment during the middle of the 20th century, now adding the components of ice baths, insulin comas, and electroshock therapy.

Professional Ethics – Unfortunately, it is the rare movie that depicts mental health professionals in a positive, ethical light.  Ordinary PeopleFearless, and The Snake Pit all have psychotherapists who are appropriate in their actions.  Other films typically have the psychotherapists crossing boundaries by having romantic relationships with their patients (Mr. JonesBliss) or their relatives (Prince of TidesFinal Analysis).  For the widest range of professional ethical violations in the movies, watch Analyze This.

Treatment Recommendations – When teaching about the treatment of psychopathology, students might be asked to develop a treatment plan for a film character.  How might the various presentations of depression in The Hours be treated?  Would the same treatment work for all three women in the film?

In conclusion, there are several different angles from which to view psychology in the movies.  Each of these approaches may be developed into a classroom assignment, or as a new perspective for your own film enjoyment.