Tag Archives: Jack Nicholson

Dwayne Johnson and Heroic Narratives

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Within the same time frame I was reading Marvin’s blog on the Mental Health Commission and the associated commentary, Dwayne Johnson’s story of depression popped up on multiple news sites. None of the sites gave much detail and I remain unsure if he suffered bouts of what we used to call “clinical depression”, and before that “endogenous depression” or if he simply suffered some difficult discouraging periods in life when his football career and a relationship ended.

In these brief news items Dwayne’s story is shaped as the narrative of an “heroic struggle”.

And I realized that most such stories are shaped and told in that form. It is a classic narrative form, and one we all want to hear.

Facing great odds, our hero, perhaps after learning some life lesson (humility, confession, love, trust, openness) battles his way through to success, health, and happiness. His weapons are will power, strength, hope, perseverance, and a little help from his friends.

It is the narrative form in the story of A Beautiful Mind’s John Nash. And it is the narrative form when the story is told about a victim of cancer.

The difference is that when we read the story and see the pictures of someone’s struggle with cancer, we know he or she has undergone one or many courses of radiation or chemotherapy, that he or she is still undergoing treatment.

The focus of the story may be on the courage and optimism of the patient, their loving  family, a special group of supportive friends, a cancer support group, or all that the patient is able to accomplish despite their illness – but we never lose sight of the fact of medical treatment for cancer.

It is good to bring mental illness out of the shadows. It is good to tell our stories. But we need to drop the euphemisms of mental health issues, and (a new one for me) mental health “situations”, and we need to include the fact of medical treatment for serious mental illness, because we don’t assume it as we do with cancer narratives. In fact, a very popular heroic struggle narrative is “I overcame my (illness, depression) without resorting to medication.”

This heroic struggle narrative has shaped the recovery movement; it has clearly influenced members of the mental health commission.

And who would bother watching a show, or reading a story with a tagline of: “A man develops depression, goes to his doctor; the doctor treats his depression and he gets better.”

This is not to denigrate the role of courage, optimism, hope, and support required to live with a chronic illness, or recover from an acute illness. But…


Another day, April 5 to be exact, and it seems it is OCD Day with several news items and videos appearing. Much is shared in these articles and videos, distinguishing crippling OCD symptoms from mild everyday forms of compulsions and obsessions. Psychological treatment is also explained, exposure and desensitization therapy. But not once, not once in the articles and videos I watched was it explained that there are medical pharmacological treatments that work with great success for about 90% of sufferers. Not once is this mentioned.

One of these medications has been around since the 1960’s, though at the time we didn’t know how effective it was for OCD and psychological/psychoanalytic thinking about the illness dominated.

I am not sure who or what is to blame for this. But for the psychologists who were interviewed to not mention this readily available medical treatment is akin to naturopaths not mentioning antibiotics when discussing the treatment of pneumonia.

Paradoxically, Jack Nicholson starred as a novelist with OCD in “As Good as it Gets” 20 years ago. At the end of the movie Nicholson’s character decides to be a better man and go back on his medication. Critics were not happy with that ending, and it did ruin the “heroic struggle” narrative. It was, as the third act of a story, very unsatisfying. “What? To quell his OCD all he had to do was take his medication?”  Well, yes.


On ECT, Jack Nicholson and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

David Laing DawsonBy Dr David Laing Dawson

In my addendum to Marvin’s blog last week I referenced Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m sure everybody got the reference. Some of those scenes are burned into the collective imagination. And I was a fan of both Ken Kesey’s novel and the movie. I say ‘was’, because as great as Nicholson’s performance, as great as Milos Forman’s direction, and Louise Fletcher’s acting, the movie may have played a minor role in the demise of the Mental Illness treatment system of North America and a return to incarceration in jails and prisons for thousands of the mentally ill, to say nothing of an unwarranted negative public reaction to ECT.  At least unwarranted since it has become more selectively and carefully used to treat only patients with severe illness not responding to medication.

The novel rose out of Mr. Kesey’s part time work as an attendant on the night shift of a Veteran’s Hospital, while taking part in a CIA sponsored experiment with psychedelic, hallucinogenic drugs, in the late 1950’s.

Movies are magic, and they play fast and loose with the truth. In the sound and fury of them, in our vicarious pleasure of escaping our bonds, seeking revenge, getting back the man or woman of our dreams, and saving the world, we often miss a few nuances and incongruities.

Randle McMurphy does embody the free rebellious rule-breaking individual confronting oppressive institutional authority as personified by Nurse Rached. And the movie makes us root for him and hate Nurse Rached. Her ultimate weapons being ECT and Lobotomy.

Now there certainly is some truth to those big overcrowded wards of large mental hospitals being run by nurses whose prime directive was to keep everything peaceful, under control, with a modicum of care and nurturing on the side. And the doctor often was, as described by sociologists, the absent father whose power could be invoked by the nurses, as in “You just wait until your father gets home.”

But here are some of the nuances in that film that slip by us: All but a couple of the patients on that ward are voluntary and could leave any time they wanted. And McMurphy, well, he is a charming psychopath, and he has faked insanity so he could be transferred to that hospital from a prison. His most recent conviction is for statutory rape with his defense being, “She came on to me.” That would imply that McMurphy had sex with a 13 or 14 year-old child at the time the book was written.

Our attitudes have shifted a little since that film was made. Today McMurphy might be charged with “sexual assault” “rape of a minor” “sexual molestation of a minor”. He would be placed on a sexual offense registry, and the public and our courts would show him little sympathy. And, I suspect, that if I were asked to provide a psychiatric evaluation of McMurphy, I would be telling the court that he is high risk to re-offend.

On the other hand, if any actor could make us root for a pedophile it would be Jack Nicholson in his prime.