Steven Soderbergh: Unretired. The director announced in 2013 that he was quitting because “movies don’t matter any more”. But he has continued to work steadily since – in television and, since last year, film again. The film he made before announcing his “retirement” was Side Effects, a psychological thriller exploring big pharma, that followed a young woman (Rooney Mara) detained in a psychiatric hospital against her will. His new film, Unsane, is a psychological thriller that follows a young woman (Claire Foy) detained in a psychiatric hospital against her will. It is clear, then, that Soderbergh finds mental illness and psychiatry interesting topics to explore.
He’s not alone. But how has the onscreen treatment of mental illness evolved over the years?
One of the screen characters we most associate with mental illness is Jack Nicholson’s Mac McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest who, lest we forget, was not insane, just hoping to avoid a prison sentence. Miloš Forman’s film, based on the Ken Kesey novel, was praised at the time for a sympathetic treatment of the inpatients, its “battle against the system” narrative and the more-or-less accurate portrayals of the often inhumane treatments routine at the time (lobotomies and electroconvulsive therapy without muscle relaxants). more
I will grant you that there was a “quiet room” where the seriously ill were sometimes put and restraints were a necessity for some patients, but fortunately for me, that was on the other wing of the floor. The people that I was around were dealing with bi-polar disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia or any other variety of mental health issues and usually admitted as a last resort. Maybe there was a suicide attempt, maybe it was a stop-gap for medical stability before being sent to somewhere more intensive. For the most part, even if we didn’t want to be there, we knew that we needed to be there. more
Surrounded by bizarre characters and nonsensical routines, humour became my shield against the stigma and isolation of life as a mental health patient
Will Sampson as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). ‘Since One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, all psychiatric wards must be issued a giant Native American as standard.’ Photograph: Allstar/United Artist
Ten years ago I spent time in a residential psychiatric ward. Not to visit a friend, or as research, but because I was mentally ill and a danger to myself.
Two things become clear when I read my diary from that period. One is that I was an utter state, and the other is that everyday life on the ward was ridiculous, with a cast of characters to match any sitcom. The diary names a lot of them: the Sleeping Chief, the Knitting Lady, Kid Zombie and “Norman Wisdom”. In the next bed along from mine – and I promise I’m not making this up – was a 6ft 6in Native American man, probably because since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, all psychiatric wards must be issued a giant Native American as standard. Sadly I never saw him throw a concrete water fountain through a window, though I’m sure the shockwaves from his constant, rumbling flatulence must have caused some structural damage to the building. more