Shrinks through the distorting mirror of cinema

On February 4, Arte launches In therapy, with Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache directing. Set in a period after the Bataclan attacks, this new series introduces us to five characters through their psychotherapy sessions. An adaptation, notably with Carole Bouquet and Reda Kateb, of the israeli series Be Tipulwhich has already had its American version, In treatment. The psychoanalyst who follows them, himself in the midst of a marital crisis, is embodied by Frédéric Pierrot. The action takes place on his couch, during the treatment of each of the characters.

“My films are a kind of psychoanalysis, except that I’m the one who gets paid and that changes everything.” Like Woody Allen, many directors have stuffed their films with psychology. From Hitchcock to Sopranos via Hannibal Lecter in Thesilenceofthelambs, they are recurring on the screen, until they become a genre in their own right. Psychiatrists, psychologists, psychoanalysts… Their distinction is often blurred and their representations quite far from reality.

Benevolent or manipulative, ridiculous and powerless to treat their patients or even dangerous psychopaths, screen shrinks arouse laughter or fear. Their representation thus influences their social image, and some patients will not consult, when they need it. This therefore raises a question of public health: how are shrinks represented on screen?

Screenwriting facilities

“If psychiatry didn’t exist, movies would have had to invent it. And that’s part of what they did, in a way.” Psychiatrist Irving Schneider has looked at the history of representations of shrinks on screen. According to him, if psychiatry and films have developed a particular affinity, it is because they share this attraction for the description of human behavior in general and deviation from the norm in particular. Shrinks abound on the screen because they question the human psyche and thus allow more scriptwriting facilities than a dermatologist or an ophthalmologist.

“From the beginning of the twentiethe century, the directors invented a new profession which they called psychiatry, continue schneider. Over the years, the character has become a mainstay in a variety of storylines and genres. Occasionally, the invented profession – intentionally or coincidentally – overlaps with the real profession of psychiatry, but most of the time it creates its own nosography, its own treatments, theories and practitioners.

Cinema is the sounding board of the spirit of the times. During the first half of the twentiethe century, shrinks were portrayed either negatively as incompetent buffoons or positively as detectives of the unconscious.

But, during the 1960s and 1970s, the antipsychiatric wave led to a loss of grace. For this current of thought, it is society that makes people sick and psychiatry that drives people mad. The shrink then becomes a sadist, master of an asylum institution which the hero comes up against as in Flight over a cuckoo’s nest.

Then, the 1990s saw the appearance of more balanced, less caricatural characters. Shrinks who set limits with their patients. Professionals, who also have their flaws as human beings, as in Sixth Sense or Gothika.

Three main types of shrinks

Schneider singles out three great archetypes of on-screen shrinks: Drs. “Dippy,” “Evil,” and “Wonderful.” According to him, three-quarters of film shrinks fall into these categories:

  • Dr “Dippy”: which could be translated as “eccentric”, is the psychiatrist as disturbed as his patients. This archetype takes its name from the first portrayal of a shrink in a 1906 silent film, Dr. Dippy’s Sanitarium. To appease his group of agitated patients, the psychiatrist offers them a pie, during an improvised picnic. Crazy methods for a shrink who is too. A character was born and it will be successful, as again recently with the character played by Philippe Katerine in Lion.

  • Dr “Evil”: these are the evil and dangerous psychiatrists. They put their knowledge of the human psyche at the service of sadistic impulses. “This stereotype, in fact, appeared very early on in the cinema in the guise of Dr. Caligari or even Dr. Mabuse, both psychiatrists and criminals, using and abusing hypnosis for their crimes”writes Christophe Desbien, author of the book, Our heroes are sick which dissects the cinematographic representations of psychiatry. This “Dr. Frankenstein of the mind» uses drug treatments, electroshock, or even lobotomy to punish or control his patients. Its most illustrious representative is Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist, but also a cannibalistic psychopath. A delight for spectators in search of thrill.

  • Dr “Wonderful”: invariably insightful, available, brilliant, warm, these practitioners listen to their patients while remaining modest and creative. Their healing techniques are most often psychotherapy, but they also use unconventional therapies like Dr. Sean Maguire (played by Robin William) in Will Hunting or even Dr John Cawley in Shutter Islandwith original psychotherapy sessions for the first and a life-size role-playing game for the second.

Shrinks who sleep with their patients

“The message delivered [par les films] seems to be that “classic” psychotherapyknowing that it is almost the only treatment shown on the screen, is ineffective, writes Dr. Desbien. You have to use methods that are out of the ordinary, either… sleep with your patient. Especially when you are a female therapist.”

It’s another recurring cliché on the screen: shrinks sleep with their patients. Good therapy invariably ends up on the couch, but with your shrink. This is the case in The army of the 12 monkeys or in mr jones.

“This relationship negates the therapeutic effect of psychiatry, wrote Jacqueline M. Atkinsonlecturer in public health at the University of Glasgow. What patients lack is love (or sex). This is what the therapist gives them and not specialized knowledge. This diminishes psychiatry as a specialty and devalues ​​patients in their suffering. Which leads one to think that Mr. Jones’ manic phases are better treated with a story with his psychiatrist than with lithium. […] It is for this reason that films dealing with doctor/patient relations feature more psychiatrists than any other specialty.

But not all women shrinks are seduced by their patients, as dangerous as the mobster Tony Soprano. In the series, The Sopranoshis psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi, strives to treat the psychic disorders of the gang leader, and does not allow himself to be impressed.

10,000 deaths per year

Refuse to see a psychiatrist because “we are not crazy”refusing psychotherapy sessions, “not to be analyzed”because “It’s no use”refusing a treatment because it makes “addict” or hospitalization for “not to be interned among the insane”: so many reactions that I regularly hear from the mouths of patients who are actually suffering from psychiatric disorders.

“Why, despite manifest mental suffering, resist the very idea of ​​consulting a psychiatrist?” This is the question that psychiatrist Myriam Added asked herself, in the introduction to his thesis on “The impact of the psychiatrist’s social representations on access to care” (2002). According to Ryan Niemiec, author of a study about psychologists in the cinema, “Most of these attitudes are the direct result of negative portrayals of mental health professionals in the media.”

Too often, psychiatric disorders are not taken care of in time. Each year, they concern up to twelve million French people and, among other things, suicide leads to around 10,000 deaths a year. Social and cinematographic representations are linked and influence each other: they sometimes lead some patients to refuse psychiatric treatment, which is nevertheless necessary. This therefore makes the representation of the shrink in the cinema almost a question of public health.

For her thesis, Myriam Added surveyed 500 people. For 12.2% of them, the psychiatrist can read minds and for 36%, he can change the behavior of people despite themselves. Moreover, 20.4% think that shrinks are not really serious doctors, but originals. Finally, for 17.5% of those questioned, they are as often ill as their patients (which is still better than a previous study from 1985 which brought this figure to 27%!).

Psychiatrist, a dirty word?

A composite image emerges from this thesis work. If the psychiatrist can be a specialist doctor, attentive, benevolent, there nevertheless persists a mistrust for this obscure character who is suspected of being as sick as his patients. An image that has consequences: in the event of lasting depression, only 22% of patients would go to see a psychiatrist and 15% a psychologist, according to Myriam Added. Whereas in the event of a heart attack, the vast majority would see their cardiologist.

Last example of this mistrust, Myriam Added recalls that even the word is taboo. We say we can “to be followed by someone”Where “we see someone”, without pronouncing the (big?) word psychiatrist or psychologist. A significant example of the stigma that still and always surrounds mental illness.

Shrinks through the distorting mirror of cinema