As part of our Mental Health Matters special series, we decided to explore how mental health and mental health-related issues are portrayed in popular culture, especially in light of initiatives like Bell Let's Talk, and movies like "Silver Linings Playbook."
I spoke with Geoff Pevere, film columnist at The Globe and Mail, about mental health in pop culture, the connection between film and mental health, and how depictions of characters living with mental illness have evolved.
I also reached out to Dr. Stephen Sokolov, a psychiatrist and the medical head of mood and anxiety ambulatory at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), for his take on "Silver Linings Playbook," the critically acclaimed 2012 film about a man who suffers from bipolar disorder and who attempts to put his life back together after being released from a psychiatric hospital. Below, Sokolov reviews the film. (Note: contains plot spoilers)
Silver Linings Playbook on The Couch
I like romantic comedies in general but, as a psychiatrist subspecializing in mood and anxiety disorders, "Silver Linings Playbook" gave me some uncomfortable twinges.
The movie (starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) opens with Pat Solitano, Jr. (played by Cooper) being signed out from a psychiatric hospital by his mother.
He was sent to the hospital by the courts eight months ago after nearly beating his wife’s lover to death. It turns out the mood swings he's been struggling with for many years, and which were ruining his marriage, are due to undiagnosed bipolar disorder. He's lost his job and his wife, Nikki (played by Brea Bee), who's obtained a restraining order against him.
Solitano is all bravado. He hasn't been taking his medication while at the hospital (he's been "cheeking" them and then spitting them out). And now his mother is signing him out against the urging of the doctors.
As to be expected, things rapidly derail at home. He's still not taking his medication. He's obsessed with getting back together with his wife, Nikki. To prove himself worthy he self-educates himself by staying up all night reading through Nikki’s teaching syllabus (she's an English teacher). Disgusted with the tragic ending of A Farewell to Arms, he launches the tome through his bedroom window and bursts into his parents’ bedroom at four in the morning complaining, "Why would they do that? Life’s already difficult enough!"
The next night there's a related outburst when Solitano can't find his wedding video. It ends with serious physical mayhem when his father restrains him. The next day, we see Solitano taking his medications. The markings on the pills are clearly visible on screen as lithium 150 mg and Seroquel™ 100 mg -- both, I must say, at subtherapeutic dose.
Take Your Medication, Get the Girl
To make a long story short (at two hours the film does run a bit longer than necessary), so begins Solitano's transformation from pariah to heartthrob. Over the course of the film, he meets the damaged Tiffany Maxwell (played by Lawrence), who reluctantly convinces Solitano to enter a dance competition with her. In the process, they confront their various demons, discover who they really care about, and team up to recover thousands of dollars Solitano's father lost gambling on football. (To understand why that happens, you'll have to watch the movie). In the end, we witness a happy ending for a life that is already difficult enough.
This isn't the first time we've seen light treatment in film of a tragic subject (the obnoxious "Life is Beautiful" comes to mind). You can argue it helps destigmatize an illness that frightens and alienates a lot of people. In fact, it doesn't stop there, ladling more saccharin through its depiction of characters with obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, problem gambling, alcohol abuse, and probably some more disorders I missed.
In my opinion, the result is a trivialization of these serious conditions and the damage they inflict on people's families, careers and, for too many, their lives, especially for the not unsubstantial number who commit suicide. The implicit theme in "Silver Linings Playbook," true to the romantic comedy format, is: "Take your medicine, and you’ll get the girl." I can't help feel in part that this disingenuous and simplistic message dishonours many of those people who I've seen struggle with this terrible but treatable disease.
Image credits: silverliningsplaybook.net, and Wikipedia.
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