Psychopathology and cinema: reality or fiction?

Psychopathology and cinema: reality or fiction?

Psychopathology has a place of choice in the history of the seventh art. A multitude of films told us stories related to psychologists, psychiatrists, and especially people who suffer from a mental disorder. Even when the common thread is not always psychopathology, the science of psychology is hidden behind each character.

Obviously, the descriptions made in these films of the psychological disorders, the symptoms of these disorders or the relationship established between the patient and the professional are not always correct. Sometimes, the search for the element of surprise, the one that induces a sense of intrigue and mystery, leads writers, directors and actors to move away from the basics of science by showing a distorted picture of what they want to represent.

"If psychiatry had not existed, the films should have invented it, and in a sense, they did."

-Irving Schneider-

Divergences to reach the surprise factor

We understand that sometimes it is necessary to "loop curly loops" so that the spectacular side of the facts has an impact on the audience, which on the other hand, goes to the cinema in search of sensations more than knowledge in the most cases. However, there is a divergence in three main aspects:

  • Violence and aggression are often linked to mental illness to reach this degree of emotion and spectacular. Many movie characters who suffer from a psychological problem are portrayed as aggressive, sadistic and with a dark side that has nothing to do with what happens to them in reality. Thus, it promotes the appearance of social stigma about the dangerousness of this type of people, even if statistically, nothing is less true.
  • There are various diseases recognized in psychopathology textbooks whose similar boundaries intermingle and the diagnostic boundaries remain untrue. For example, personality border disorder is confused with bipolar disorder, and in this setting, depressive or manic episodes are not adequately reflected. In some films, love is even presented as a treatment that can be brought to trouble.
  • The image of the therapist is wrongly represented. Psychiatrist Pilar de Miguel explains that in cinema, generally, the therapist is presented as being unable to set limits with his patients.

Even so, there are films that you can learn and appreciate the know-how and truthful documentation. However, in some cases, we understand the need to look for drama and reinforcement of stories and feelings. The viewer must never forget that a film remains a representation of reality, not the reality itself.

For the worse and for the better

For the worse and for the better is the film we all associate with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a film where The symptomatology of the OCD and the personality of the protagonist are intertwined.

The irascible character of Melvin can generate the mistaken idea that those who suffer from this disorder have the same personality traitsbut we must separate these unpleasant features from the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, such as the severe rituals of cleanliness, symmetry and repetition that we are shown in the film.

"Dr. Green, how can you diagnose an obsessive-compulsive disorder in me and then be surprised to see me come here suddenly?"


After the first, a large portion of viewers have associated obsessive-compulsive disorder with unpleasant and moody people, while with a little love and friendship, the symptoms can subside or even disappear.


The film Aviator by Martin Scorsese tells a slice of life for millionaire, producer and entrepreneur Howard Hughes, character played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

From the point of view of psychopathology, this film exposes us in a very fair way the development and the evolution of obsessive compulsive disorder. It all begins with a childhood marked by the fear of a mother that her son falls ill, passing through a youth full of eccentricities and mania until adulthood marked by obsessions and impulses.

In the film, one can observe that Howard Hughes has an obsessive fear of germs. He carries his soap everywhere with him, and compulsively cleans his hands until he is bleeding to avoid being contaminated.

At that time, the definition of the disorder as such did not exist, so it was never treated.However, all the symptomatology that he presents and the suffering it generates in him (reflected to perfection in the film) indicate that he certainly suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder.


Before talking about Christopher Nolan's film and its accuracy, we need to explain what anterograde amnesia is. Unlike the well-known retrograde amnesia, which consists of forgetting the things of the past, this disorder is mainly characterized by the inability to learn and memorize new things. The person who presents the anterograde amnesia forgets everything that happens when it happens because she is not able to accumulate the information in her long-term memory. For her, nothing remains, because she lives in a great disorientation spatio-temporal. At every moment, it's the same point, again and again.

Without revealing too much about the film and its narrative structure, Memento faithfully reflects the anguish and the characteristics of the person who suffers from this manifestation of memory.

This film presents the system created by the protagonist from notes, photos and tattoos to try to decipher the enigma from which the film. His strategy is not to remember, but to confirm that he knows something that is presented to him. The director's goal is for the viewer to empathize with the protagonist and his state of conscious confusion, and it seems to be a success.

Memento may not perfectly reflect anterograde amnesia, but on the other hand, this film is capable of keeping us in this situation of uncertainty and confusion peculiar to the protagonist.

"What poor memory is the one that works only backwards!"

-Lewis Carroll-

As we see, cinema, beyond mere entertainment, is a gateway to knowledge, reflection and empathy through its stories and characters. To drink the experiences of others, even if it is through fiction, is something that is within our reach. But if what you want is to know more in detail the world of psychopathology, we advise you to find out through manuals and specialists.

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