By Dr David Laing Dawson
Some years ago I pitched a screenplay to a producer in Toronto. The story involved a man, a teacher, with bipolar disorder, who becomes manic and delusional in the classroom. I like it, said the producer, and we talked some more. But before the subject of finances came up he said, “But I think at the end we must learn that all his so-called delusions are true.”
Literature and film are replete with stories of disabilities, people living with disabilities, surviving disabilities, overcoming disabilities, accomplishing much despite the disability, living with illnesses, surviving illnesses, succumbing to illnesses. For the most part they have helped reduce stigma, raise awareness, shape public attitudes, and inform policy. With the exception of the horror genre the devil is not involved, evil is not present and miracles do not happen.
Down’s Syndrome is generally presented quite realistically and sensitively. More recently autism has been well represented, though usually with that rare gift of a particular and enhanced mental skill: code breaking, card counting, eidetic memory.
Poor schizophrenia, and, to a slightly lesser extent, poor bipolar illness. One well-known film implies the young musician’s madness was caused by an oppressive father and his own passionate response to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number 3, and then he is unfortunately housed in a mental hospital for years, only to retrieve his life when he is discharged and stumbles across a piano. Another man tells the psychiatrist, off and on through 90 minutes of film that he is from a different planet, which, of course, turns out to be probably true.
All too often multiple personality (invented as a fictional device, remains fiction) becomes the explanation for why the psychotic person, the killer, the psychiatrist, and the detective are so well acquainted.
And then there’s the mental hospital – active and run by an evil psychiatrist, or abandoned on the fog-shrouded hillside – what better location for a story of intrigue, illusion, madness and horror. When, in fact, the mental hospitals were for the most part just buildings in which doctors go about doctoring, nurses nurse, social workers social work, counsellors counsel, and occupational therapists organize as many health promoting activities as they can.
I am writing about this because I am trying to understand why psychiatry, schizophrenia, and psychiatric hospitals have been left behind during the last 40 years when enlightened attitudes, knowledge, policies, and practices benefiting people who have autism, Down’s syndrome, suffer from Cancer, Aids, Alzheimer’s, and even addictions, have emerged.
And, I suspect, much of the blame falls on popular culture, the books, films, television, movies, and Netflix series we all devour for an average of, say, 3 hours per day.
Cancer, in fiction and fact, is a treatable disease, sometimes with success, sometimes partial success, sometimes failure. Schizophrenia is also, in fact, a treatable disease, sometimes with success, sometimes partial success, sometimes failure.
But in fiction, schizophrenia and madness are, can be, usually, delicious metaphors for humankind’s struggle for peace, harmony, truth and meaning. And certainly when the occupants of a Greek Mental hospital escape into the war torn village they are definitely more likable, sensible, kind and humane than the men and women trying to kill one another. And what could be more intriguing than Robin Williams looking for the Holy Grail in New York city?
But John Nash didn’t will himself to wellness with his superior intellect; he was treated with one of the (at the time) newer anti-psychotic medications, and then he regained stability and sanity. His son, John Charles Nash, also suffering from schizophrenia, lives at home, his illness controlled with medication and regular visits by a mental health team.
Both Vince Li and Scott Starson are living at home following and continuing with medical treatment for their schizophrenia. But, where is the story in that?