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Mental Health in Silver Linings Playbook

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Mental illness is not only better understood and better treated today than in the past, but it has come to be viewed as nearly mainstream in popular culture. One of the most fascinating issues concerning mental health and mental illness is how we draw the boundaries between behavior that is considered evidence of mental illness, on one hand, and behavior that is merely considered strange or otherwise problematic, on the other. The recent film Silver Linings Playbook provides a valuable platform from which to discuss this issue. In subtle ways, it challenges us to rethink our normative presuppositions concerning thought and behavior.

The ambiguity that is the subject of this paper emerges early in the film, and in a number of different ways. We learn that the event which led to Pat’s being committed to a psychiatric hospital was initiated by the fact that he walked in on his wife having sex with another man. Pat reacted violently. Perhaps his reaction was partly attributable to his bipolar disorder’which I do not question that he has’or we could view it as a fairly normal, if not entirely appropriate, response to the situation. There are also some related and even subtler issues that play a minor role in the film. Pat’s release from the hospital is discretionary. We later learn that his friend, whom he tries at the beginning to break out of the facility, has his fate determined by some relatively arbitrary decision or deadline. Each of these facts hints at the possibility that there may be an element of arbitrariness in the distinction between the mentally ill and others (at least in some cases).

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Two other central characters contribute to the effect I am describing. Pat’s father is incredibly superstitious concerning the local football team’s success, believing that the positions of the remotes control, as well as the presence or absence of certain people from his house during games, influence the outcome. Superstition alone does not seem to be considered a form of mental illness, but in extreme cases the line between the two can seem somewhat blurry. Tiffany too has some apparent mental health issues. It is tempting to ascribe these to the tragedy of the death of her husband, but there are two pieces of evidence in the film (other than her sometimes erratic and extreme behavior) that suggest this not the whole story. One involves a discussion of the effects of certain medications between Pat and Tiffany at a dinner party. The other is her description of her former self as not wanting children because she is barely able to take care of herself’and this description, of course, concerns her state of mind before her husband’s tragic death.

Pat appears not to take his medication. We see him merely pretend to take it at the hospital, and later he proclaims to his therapist that he will not take any drugs. He appears to think that by focusing on his reading syllabus and his exercise he can self-treat, as it were, his illness. He is not entirely unsuccessful in this, though there are occasions where he has something approaching a psychotic break. However, both incidents involve the potential for violence that he is not wholly responsible for causing. Many people considered mentally healthy have extreme reactions in such extreme situations. Tiffany too seems to self-treat her illness (if she has one, a matter that is not fully clarified in the film); she does it through the medium of casual sex.

The climax of the film, interpreted narrowly as a work about mental illness, comes toward the end when Pat is commenting on the fact that his father has been permanently banned from attending the local football stadium, due to previous violent incidents. Pat remarks to his father that perhaps they are both crazy. Similarly, Pat refers in a monologue at the end of the film to ‘the craziness inside myself, and everyone else’. This is the most overt expression in the film of the idea that ‘craziness’ is a matter of degree, being somehow present in everyone.

It must be stressed that I am not denying the reality or seriousness of mental illness. What I am denying is that there is always a clear-cut distinction between the two, and Silver Linings Playbook brings this out in powerful if subtle ways. More speculatively, one is moved to reflect upon the socio-political dimension involved in some characterizations of mental illness, or of people allegedly afflicted with such illness. Homosexuality used to be considered a mental illness. Some non-serious thinkers may still regard it as such. What is most interesting about this is not that it was bad science (though it was), but the way in which socio-political norms and views seem to have influenced the science. Another illustrative example concerns the abolitionist John Brown. Most high-school textbooks describe him as being mentally unwell. Yet there appears not to be any real evidence of this. The descriptions derive from the unthinkability of some of his behavior. That is to say, his behavior was so far from the accepted normative standards that people simply could not make sense of it without regarding him as mentally ill. This would be relatively uninteresting if it were consciously done. If people who disagreed with Brown’s politics decided to brand him as mentally unwell in order to discredit him, that would be significant, but not nearly as interesting as if it had been completely unconsciously done. For unconscious patterns of thought, as Freud stressed, are the most powerful’precisely because we are unaware of their operation.