Monday, November 13, 2006

Shrinks on The Big Screen

[posted by dinah]

Last week, I saw Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. It was in every respect an excellent, riveting movie where the action never paused and 150 minutes simply flew. Excellent in every respect, that is, but that I left the theatre unsettled by the film portrayal of yet another disturbed psychiatrist.

Vera Farmiga plays the smoldering Dr. Madolyn Madden (why aren’t psychiatrists ever named Dr. Sanity?) who works for the state of Massachusetts treating traumatized police officers. She quickly becomes involved with good-guy/really bad-guy Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) after a chance elevator meeting where sparks instantly flew. She then sees Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) the bad-guy/really good-guy as her patient in psychotherapy. In their discussions about truth and deception, Billy quickly turns the tables and manages to unnerve Madolyn, after which he demands Valium. She chases him down to give him a prescription, hands it to him saying she’s referring his case to another clinician, and moments thereafter ends up in bed with him which she deems fine because he isn’t her patient. Oy. Here we go again.

Why is it that the shrink is always either part of the problem—think of Dressed to Kill where the cross-dressed psychiatrist kills his patients or Silence of the Lambs where Dr. Lechter doesn’t just kill them, he saut├ęs and eats them as well—or consumed with problems of her own? Even The Soprano’s Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) who gets my vote for conducting the media’s most realistic portrayal of psychotherapy, is kind of screwed up. She does okay inside the consulting room, but after hours, her marriage has failed, her son is a mess, she confesses to her own psychiatrist that she drinks to deal with all the stress.

But, wait, you say, what about Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People? He played a good psychiatrist, he helped the kid. He was everyone’s ideal doctor, available at 3 AM for therapeutic breakthroughs, engaged and engaging, insightful, and even kind of normal—a role model for psychiatrists every where. Can I point out that Ordinary People, still sited and remembered for the Judd Hirsch portrayal, was released in 1980, nearly twenty-seven years ago?

So does it matter? Do these media images of psychiatrists as disturbed, if not dangerous, individuals who sleep with, kill, and even eat their patients because of their own psychopathology influence the real man’s decision about whether to seek help when his distress gets to be too much? Does it add to the stigma that still permeates the world of mental illness? Or is it all simply entertainment, obviously distorted and exaggerated to meet the needs of the big screen?

Who knows? I believe it leaves both psychiatrists and psychiatric patients a bit ill at ease. I hope, however, that the benefits of psychiatric care speak for themselves. Psychiatric treatments change people’s lives, usually for the better, even when administered by morally conscious, ordinary psychiatrists. Unfortunately, that’s not entertainment.