Psychiatry and Mental Illness

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Psychiatry in the Media: The Vampire, The Fisher King, and The Zaddik
Abstract: The portrayal of psychiatrists in popular movies has been colored by three main stereotypes: the "evil" doctor, the "kooky" doctor, and the "wonderful" doctor. On one level, these depictions represent the understandable ambivalence many people feel toward authority figures who, from time to time, may abuse their power. But on a more primal level, these stereotypes may be related to three archetypes that I call The Vampire, the Fisher King, and The Zaddik. A number of films and television programs are analyzed in light of these archetypes, and their antagonistic relationship to the "mundane". Some implications for the future of psychiatry and the cinema are discussed.

As a psychiatrist, I usually try to stay away from movies about mental illness. In the first place, I feel that I've already "given at the office" and usually want a little respite from the ravages of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and suicidal impulses. More than that, though, Hollywood almost always gets mental illness wrong–and usually does a hatchet job on the psychiatrist, psychologist, or psychotherapist on the case. But why is this so?

It's probably obvious that the general public has strongly ambivalent feelings about psychiatrists and others usually referred to as "shrinks". (For purposes of this essay, I will use the term "psychiatrist" generically, even though, as physicians, psychiatrists occupy a unique niche among mental health professionals). This ambivalence shouldn't be surprising–after all, how should you feel about someone who has the power to help you rise from the depths of depression, or, potentially, to lock you away in the bowels of an institution? Many still share Emily Dickinson's perception that, when it comes to mental illness,

‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail–
Assent--and you are sane--
Demur--you're straightway dangerous--
And handled with a Chain--

We are ambivalent about psychiatrists in roughly the way we are about priests and prophets–simultaneously revering and reviling them, wishing for their benign intercession while fearing their malign control. And, yes–it doesn't help that some of us in the profession are great, inexhaustible gas-bags, as the producers of Frasier well know. But I think the story is richer and more complex than this. Beneath the Hollywood depictions of psychiatrists are some enduring and ancient archetypes–those primal structures of the human psyche that Carl Jung called the collective unconscious In this essay, I utilize the archetypal approach developed by psychologist James Hillman in his book, The Dream and the Underworld (1979). There, Hillman argues that dreams are phenomena that emerge "…from a specific archetypal "place" and that correspond with a distinct mythic geography…". Hillman invokes the figures of Greek mythology, such as Hercules and Narcissus, to develop a "depth psychology" of dreaming. Similarly, I want to suggest that beneath the three stock movie-types described by Irving Schneider–Dr. Evil, Dr. Dippy, and Dr. Wonderful (Gabbard & Gabbard1; Clara2)–are three sustaining archetypes: respectively, The Vampire, The Fisher King, and The Zaddik. Finally, I argue that Hollywood's attitude toward the "mundane" has created an inauthentic sense of both patients and their caregivers.

The Vampire

When I think of vampires, I think of Bela Lugosi's wonderful movie portrayals of Count Dracula. As an adolescent, I was always mesmerized by Lugosi's mix of old-world charm and diabolical evil. Nobody set a better table in the old...
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