Therapy Thursdays: The Snake Pit

You may have seen my recommendation of The Snake Pit for the Olivia de Havilland edition of the SUtS series. I recommended it, but had not yet seen the film. Part of the joy of the project was getting to see films I hadn’t watched or reviewed, yet, and this was one of them.

I chose this film to begin the Therapy Thursday segment because it was the first film to approach mental health as a social issue. Olivia de Havilland plays Virginia, a young woman who has a “nervous breakdown,” a common euphemism for the psychotic break or flare-up in schizophrenia. In this film, schizophrenia, Paranoid Type, Chronic/Recurring is probably what they were trying to portray (although they never say anything beyond nervous break-down).

I have to say that I was impressed with the film. Contrary to the worrying trend in film and television to demonize individuals who suffer from mental illness, this film humanizes them. It is remarkably honest in both the environment of the institution and the nature of the delusions and symptoms that the patients portray. A few of the details are a little unlikely, but most of them serve to move the plot forward or increase sympathy for the characters, which makes these minor deviations quite forgivable.

The film leans heavily on psyhoanalysis as a therapy, which it was at the time. Although Freud’s methods are not typically used in modern treatment of schizophrenia and other psychotic cases (although there are always exceptions), psychoanalysis was the first attempt to use talk therapy to help the mentally ill. Similarly, the clinical use of electric convulsive therapy was well-portrayed (not designed as a terror tactic but cruel or mad doctors, but as a genuine attempt to alter the nerve firing within the brain. This is typically not used anymore, and has generally been replaced by psychotropic medication regimens. However, at the time of this film, ECT was much more common.)

The staff at the state hospital were really quite believable, although a distressing number of the staff were quite misguided. However, considering the point of view was from a patient, this works well. People don’t generally enjoy being patients in institutions, and there was a lot of judging and harshness in earlier institutions. Some staff were burnt out and impatient, but others were sympathetic and dedicated. Her primary doctor was an excellent example of a mental health ideal, possibly ahead of his own time.

As a pro-social film about mental health, this is a good one, even for today. The images surpass many of those today in sympathy, humanity, and honesty. Add to that it’s endearing characters and well-constructed plot, and I must give it two enthusiastic thumbs-up.  I must add the book (written by Mary Jane Ward) to my reading list.

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