Mental Health Issues and Treatment in the Film “Girl Interrupted”

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Many films have been inspired by the enigma of abnormal psychology. One of these films is Girl, Interrupted, based on the book of the same title about the real life experiences of the author, Susanna Kaysen, in her stay in a mental institution in the late 1960’s. Most of the film is appropriately set in the institution, Claymoore Psychiatric Hospital. And through the interactions Susanna has with the other patients, the audience gets to know their disorders, their day-to-day lives in the institution, and their road to recovery.

The Characters A multitude of characters inhabit the institution. Susanna Kaysen, played by Winona Ryder, is the seemingly normal heroine. Nurse Valerie Owens, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is the motherly voice of reason in the hospital. Polly Clark, played by Elisabeth Moss is the sweet and innocent burn victim. Georgina Tuskin, played by Clea Duvall, is Susanna’s roommate. Daisy Randone, played by Brittany Murphy, is the uptight prim and proper patient. Janet Webber, played by Angela Bettis, is the thin, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed blonde.

Lisa Rowe, played by Angelina Jolie, is the rebellious runaway that kept ending up in the hospital. Together they show the world of the mental institution and the bonds and relationships forged between patients despite their illness. Dr. Melvin Potts, played by Jeffrey Tambor and Dr. Sonia Wick, played by Vanessa Redgrave are the therapists in charge of the patients. Diagnosis and Portrayal of the Disorders Susana Kaysen is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder prompted by her suicide attempt with a bottle of aspirin and vodka.

She finds the definition of BPD in the book as an “instability of self image, relationships, and mood; uncertainty about goals; impulsive in activities that are self damaging such as casual sex; social contrariness and a generally pessimistic attitude are often observed” (Bodie, Ryder, & Mangold, 1999). With this definition, she only agrees with the last part. This is consistent with her persistent denial of her condition and of her suicide attempt, claiming that she did not try to kill herself and simply had a headache.

It is only when her boyfriend proposes escaping to Canada that she admits her attempt on ending her life, thus accepting that she needs help. She is the only senior in her high school not going to college and has sexual relations with a professor who was also the husband of one of her mother’s friends confirming her uncertainty with her goals and unstable relationships. She denies being promiscuous and is unclear in the film whether she is or not, highlighting the question on determining promiscuity.

Even with the supporting facts in the diagnosis for Susanna, her character’s portrayal in the film is that of a normal person thrown into the world of those with real psychological problems, perhaps a tool for helping the audience gain access to the world of abnormal psychology while retaining an observant, sane point of view. As Nurse Valerie tells her, she is not crazy but a “lazy self-indulgent little girl who is driving herself crazy” (Bodie, Ryder, & Mangold, 1999).

Lisa, diagnosed as a sociopath, is the most hardened among the group and probably the most consistent with the portrayal of her diagnosis. Her file reads: highs and lows increasingly severe; controlling relationships with patients; no appreciable response to medications; no remission. She is potentially dangerous and in obvious need for help. She fails to conform to norms with her history of escapes only to be delivered back to the hospital by the police. She does not respect the laws and rules of the hospital, for she sees this as being free as if the institution is her own personal playground.

She is rebellious but has a magnetic personality, liked by others and has influence over other patients, even if she is a threat to them as she bullies and breaks other patient’s self esteem on a whim. She encourages them to avoid taking their medication and instead trade it with others. She undermines therapy, even ridiculing the doctors calling Dr. Wick as Dr. Dyke. She is impulsive and does not plan ahead as shown in her escape with Susanna towards Disneyland in Florida.

They ended up hitch hiking and going to a hippie party and had no answer when asked about their safety net in Florida. She has poor behavioral controls as her irritability and aggressiveness gets her in fights and was even introduced in the film as such with her attacking Susana for taking the bed space of her former best friend named Jamie. She violates the rights of others, kicks their doors and gets inside the house or room without invitation. She is reckless and has complete disregard for other’s safety, even bullying Daisy to the point of breakdown and eventual suicide.

She showed lack of remorse as she takes money from the robe of the still hanging corpse of Daisy, even rationalizing that she is the only one who had the courage and the honesty to tell Daisy the truth and that she is an idiot for taking the course of action that she did only because she cannot handle the truth. Daisy, is suffering from bulimia as revealed in the scene where she is desperately asking for laxatives. As with bulimics, she has a choice of binge food, rotisserie chicken from her father’s deli. She claims that when she eats something else, she pukes.

Also consistent with the portrayal of her diagnosis is the guilt that follows overeating as she gives in to Lisa’s intimidation and trades her valium for Susanna’s laxatives. She wants to regain control through purging the shame of eating five whole chickens as evidenced by the chicken bones hidden under her bed. It is also insinuated in the film that she was sexually abused by her father. Later it was revealed that she inflicts harm to herself by cutting her arms. Georgina, Susanna’s roommate, to her own admission is in the hospital for Pseudologia fantastica.

She is a pathological liar who tells her own version of Polly’s scar on instinct and again, effortlessly lies about her father being the head of the CIA and can have Susana killed when she got angry about what Susanna wrote in her journal. Her stories are not entirely improbable and had some element of truth and only became obvious lies when she reveals her illness. Her story, particularly about how Polly acquired her burns were unprovoked by the immediate situation as Susana was merely asking and is not under pressure to make up a story, as is consistent with pathological liars.

The less developed supporting characters did not have their diagnosis clarified which also limited the portrayal of their disorders. Janet is implied to be an anorexic with her frail figure and her bargain with Valerie to get her clothes back while wearing a hospital gown to which Valerie answers that she needs to eat something to obtain them. She had an outburst about the release of fellow eating disorder patient Daisy, anguished about the concept of the perfect weight as she remains a patient. The way she speaks and carries herself may imply other problems but were not further expanded in the film.

Polly is the burn victim that acts like an innocent and sweet little girl, possibly remaining in the time before she got burned. She is conscious about her appearance even having an outburst because she feels ugly that led to her solitary confinement. Cynthia Crowley who wears men’s clothing and claims that she is a sociopath is played by Jillian Armenante. She is a supporting character that did not have her diagnosis well developed and did not have her exact illness clarified in the film. Treatment

The treatment shown in the film is general and the same among the patients as in talking with therapists and daily medications. The particulars and the tailor fitted treatment for the different illnesses were not shown. Art classes, ballet classes and interaction with other patients were employed. Although minimal, patients were also allowed contact with the outside world as seen in their trip to the ice cream parlor. Solitary confinement was enforced for problematic patients as in Lisa’s violence and Polly’s tantrum. Shock therapy was implied but not shown as Lisa cites it as a reason to escape the institution.

An improvement could have been made with the doling out of medications as patients find ways to hide their medications and trade it with the ones they want, undermining their treatment. Also, the premature release of Daisy contributed to her tragic end as she was clearly not ready and posed danger to herself in her independence. The best treatment known for self-harm is identifying the causes of it; in her case, the possible sexual abuse from her father which was not dealt with as she ended up under his care and when confronted about it, killed herself.

The adequacy of the treatment was implied when Susanna narrates that by the 70’s, most of the patients were released and were leading their lives. It was also highlighted that the efficacy of the treatments are subsequent to the patient’s cooperation as Susanna’s road to recovery was realized when she decided to use the system instead of fighting it. Ethical Concerns The portrayal of abnormal psychology in the film stresses that there is a thin line between sane and crazy.

In the end of the movie, Susanna’s character narrates as she leaves the hospital: “Crazy isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret. It’s you or me amplified. If u ever told a lie and enjoyed it, if you ever wished you could be a child forever” (Bodie, Ryder, & Mangold, 1999). The general and vague descriptions of the mental disorders may confuse the audience and lead them to misinterpret the gravity of the mental illnesses and the arduous task of treatment and recovery. Also, the magnetic portrayal of a sociopath may have glamorized it for an impressionable audience. Conclusion

It is important to note that the film was not primarily made to inform as it does not focus on the medical aspects of the mental illnesses but the relationships built between the characters despite their troubles. The movie gives an insight to the lives of people with psychological problems and is not to be a replacement for actual study to substantially understand the complicated nature of abnormal psychology and the treatments employed to help the afflicted.


  • Bodie, C. , & Ryder, W. (Executive Producers), & Mangold, J. (Director). (1999). Girl, Interrupted [Motion picture]. United States of America: Columbia Pictures

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