Fictional characters, fictional problems

The Wall Street Journal has a story on psychology professors using examples from fictional characters to teach their students. The title of this article is Fictional characters, real problems.

Sigmund Freud named the Oedipus complex for Sophocles’ tragic character and was fascinated with Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. Increasingly, professors from Psych 101 to medical schools and psychoanalytic institutes are using fiction and film in classroom assignments or outside electives.

Fictional prejudice, after all, isn’t quite up there with real prejudice. Wonder why we differentiate between the movies (Hollywood) and reality? Think, before movies, it was pulp fiction. I’d say, given this kind of education, you need to make the same kind of distinction when it comes to psychology and reality.

The use of books and movies in teaching is growing in part because fictional characters obviously aren’t protective of their privacy the way real patients can be. Even when their names and identifying details are disguised, patients must give consent to have their case histories written about or discussed with others, and many are reluctant to.

Gee. This one makes you wonder how much of ‘reality’ is diluted and edited out of fiction, cut from the movies, and just closeted from experience. True realism seems to remain a somewhat elusive ideal. Oh, Dostoevsky, if you only knew! It was merely the surface you scratched. No wonder people undergoing therapy are fain to confess to total strangers.

This is where it gets spooky.

Mental-health students even explore children’s literature for buried psychological themes. Analysts have had a field day in the “Hundred Acre Wood” with A.A. Milne’s characters. While the world of Winnie the Pooh seems innocent on the surface, “it is clear to our group of modern neuro-developmentalists that these are in fact stories of seriously troubled individuals, many of whom meet DSM-IV criteria for significant disorders,” wrote Sarah E. Shea and colleagues in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2000, referring to the handbook of diagnoses.

Analysis of Winnie the Pooh looks like it could get Christopher Robin in some deep therapy.

Piglet clearly suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, the authors noted. Eeyore has chronic dysthymia (mild depression) and could benefit greatly from an antidepressant. Tigger is hyperactive, impulsive and a risk-taker.

Do they mean by ‘a risk-taker’ reckless? He said raising his pen to place another check mark beside the symptom of a severe disturbance.

Pooh is a bundle of comorbidities that may include cognitive impairment, as he is often described as a “bear of very little brain.” “Early on, we see Pooh being dragged downstairs bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head,” the authors write. “Could his later cognitive struggle be the result of a type of Shaken Bear Syndrome?”

Back to Christopher Robin…You aren’t suggesting Dissociative Identity Disorder, are you? Yes, or he could be possessed of ‘a bundle of comorbidities’, or both? Or, is Christopher actually a ‘gifted’ child blessed with an imaginative and creative intelligence? Another possibility, less far fetched, and more advantaging perhaps.

Hello, future mental health goons and thought police rookies. I’ve got another idea. Let’s let children be children. Withdraw and withold your diagnoses until Christopher approaches his 21st birthday and, if everything is not alright, at least it isn’t a forgone conclusion. It would be a real shame to lose Winnie the Pooh and company to “serious mental illness”.

Just imagine, if they’d caught A.A. Milne early enough there might never have been any Winnie the Pooh and company and, of course, that would make the world a much safer and more comforting place for everyone.

2 Responses

  1. Twenty or thirty years ago the psychs were at least a little bit cautious with their appeals to stereotypes and charicatures. Now, since they have the support of the fascinated public they use them with gay abandon.

    • Things were a little better 20 & 30 years ago. Biological medical model psychiatry wasn’t as firmly entrenched as it is today. The system was less likely to hound people beyond the walls of the state hospital. The drug industry wasn’t as booming as it is today, atypical psychiatric drugs hadn’t been developed, and so people in mental health treatment weren’t dying at such young ages as they are now.

      In Winnie the Pooh, I don’t see stereotypes and charactures so much as children. I see this as a matter of pathologizing childhood. In the Tao of child development, from one angle you’ve got GAD, ADHD, etc.–labels, but from the opposing angle, most all children are anxious, all children get distracted and inattentive. Now that they’re giving these children stimulents and antidepressants, the childhood schizophrenia and bipolar rates are soaring. Take those drugs away, and the serious mental illness rates for children will decline proportionally. What’s being done here is criminal. It should be criminal anyway.

      Rule # 1. Children are not adults. They should not be expected to behave like adults. Adults have experience. Children don’t have experience. Parents are there to protect their children. The parent who lets his or her child be psychiatrically labeled, and injured through psychiatric prescription drug use, is a bad parent. There may be exceptions to this rule, but they would tend to be much much rarer than is the case today. People talk about ‘last resorts’, well, the ‘last resort’ is right before you get to never, and I don’t mean Neverland. I think there is absolutely no question about the matter, children, over diagnosed and over drugged, are being harmed by this expectation that they have the nervous systems and constitutions of fully developed adults.

      Rule # 2. Adults are not children. They should not be treated like children, or they might not ever develop the capacity to perform at an adult level. Mental health law, and the paternalism of much mental health treatment these days, represent ways of trying to get around this rule. The US Constitution and its Bill of Rights were developed to protect the rights of adults. After a child has reached the age of 21 (i.e. adulthood), parents should have only so much of a say over the lives of their children. There are clinging children just as their are clinging parents. Adult child is an oxymoron. Using ‘mental illness’ as an excuse to treat adults like children represents, in a broad sense, a threat to the foundations of Democracy in this country. We are saying in effect that these laws should be applied equally to all citizens, except for those who have been judged to have a ‘mental illness’, those people who have been characterized as ‘adult children’.

      Rule # 3. Adolescence is a transitional state between childhood and adulthood. Adolescence can be a rough. For some people this period of trial and error, of transition and learning, can be rougher than it is for others. A person going through adolescence can end up in trouble with the law. A person going through adolescence can also find themselves characterized as emotionally disturbed. Not to get overly alarmed. This is perfectly natural. Given the right kind of supportive environment people in adolescence will recover from whatever misfortunes they may have experienced, and go on to achieve wonderful things in life. One little thing though, this doesn’t happen where the adolescent is taken for a lost cause. Without second, third, and fourth chances, some adolescents never make their way into a thriving adulthood. Remember, let’s not throw the adolescent out with the bath water, or we may have an ‘adult child’ to contend with later.

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