By Sydney Leibfritz
After a week of panels, lectures, and a student research colloquium, Sewanee’s third annual Brain Awareness week concluded with a showing of Girl, Interrupted (1991). The film was followed by a panel exploring the psychology behind the film and issues with representation on-screen.
Girl, Interrupted follows Susanna Casing (Winona Ryder) as she enters Claymoore psychiatric institution in the aftermath of a suicide attempt. Susanna quickly befriends the other patients, including a sociopath named Lisa (Angelina Jolie). Casing soon finds herself slipping away from recovery after befriending the sociopath.
The film covers a variety of mental health concerns from pathological lying to anorexia to suicide. While Susanna is exposed to a lot over the course of the film, she ultimately realizes that she must accept her mental illness and move on from it instead of resisting help.
As the credits began to roll, the panelists took their seats. The panel consisted of Dr. Maha Jafri from the English department, Dr. John Coffey of psychology, and senior psychology major Madison Bunderson. Psychology professor Dr. Brandy Tiernan was the evening’s moderator.
Tiernan began by asking how Susanna would have been treated today as opposed to the 1960s and 1970s, inciting a lengthy discussion on the evolution of mental health. Coffey explained the standard treatment for mental health in the 1960s, which primarily consisted of stowing the mentally ill away in hospitals and leaving them there for most of their lives. The treatment in these facilities was not very thorough and often ineffective.
Susanna’s treatment specifically illustrated this because she was not placed in Claymoore for four days following her suicide attempt. In today’s protocol, Coffey explained, she likely would have been hospitalized in the immediate days following the event until she was no longer considered a danger to herself.
The question of diagnosis and whether or not Susanna actually needed to be treated quickly emerged from this discussion. In the past, many people were deemed mentally ill for not behaving properly, especially women. A flurry of women were misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder for being too loud or too opinionated.
Susanna’s criticism of being labeled “sexually promiscuous” and wanting to be a writer instead of going to college hinted at this notion.
The panelists also discussed how diagnoses have evolved over time and over cultures. For example, some diseases from the past no longer exist, and some only affect particular cultures. This malleability shows that this field will always be evolving and raises the question of what aspects of our current treatments and understanding of psychology will remain relevant in twenty-or-so years.
The panelists also critiqued the film’s depiction of the characters and the romanticization of madness. Jafri warned that “with any work depicting mental illness, there’s always the challenge of between being realistic but not romanticizing it.”
The panel explored the emphasis Hollywood placed on “pretty diseases” in the 1990s when Girl, Interrupted premiered. For example, characters dealing with anorexia or bulimia are much more common than characters who have binge-eating disorder. Because these representations often fail to depict the dark side of mental illness, the risk of romanticization may be higher.
Additionally, certain lines from the film seemed to suggest that madness was an expansion of the liberated female or that the only way to attain truth is to be mad. In her final monologue, Susanna says, “Crazy isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret. It’s you and me amplified,” which both indicates her finding empowerment in who she is, but also raises concerns about finding comfort in being mentally ill.
The panel then questioned how mental illness is depicted in today’s society, particularly on websites like Tumblr. With the expansion of technology and the Internet, there has been an increase in self-diagnosis.
In addition, the increase in individuals forming connections and networks online with those sharing their diagnosis poses new concerns, including over-identification with mental illness and a new reluctance to reach out for professional help with communities to fall back on. The romanticized depictions of self-harm or disorders in these communities may even encourage these actions to some audiences.
Overall, Girl, Interrupted and the following panel served as a way to both visualize psychological concerns and to remember how much mental health resources have evolved in recent years alone. This conclusion to Brain Awareness Week perfectly encapsulated how far psychology has come and how far we still have left to go.