The Fisher King (1991)

IlikeNYinJune

In the film, Robin Williams plays Parry, a teacher who becomes mentally ill after he witnessed his wife being killed in a restaurant massacre. Unable to recuperate from the tragic incident, Perry becomes a deluded homeless man. He believes that he is a knight sent by God on a sacred quest.

He often hallucinates that he is visited by “little people” to advise him on his quest. Additionally, Parry also sees the “Red Knight”, a large, monstrous enemy that rides a black horse and breathes fire. The “Red Knight” often appear whenever he tried to show confidence.
In reviewing the accuracy of the film’s portrayal of a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), some forums claimed that this film may not be accurate (PTSDforum, 2007; Niemiee, 2005). This because there is an incongruence between the cause and the symptoms portrayed in the film. On one hand Parry seemed to suffer mental disturbance from the murder of his wife which is a important diagnostic criteria for PTSD, on the other he was portrayed to have grandiose religious delusions and hallucinations which are more prominent among schizophrenic patients. There seem to be confusion as to whether Parry was suffering from PTSD or schizophrenia.

Although this film has received much critics on its accuracies of its portrayal of mental illness, I tend to somewhat disagree with these reviews (I will explain why I did not fully disagree with these commentators later). This is because there is a possibility for Parry to suffer from PTSD while having delusion and hallucinations at the same time. Based on a nationally representative study (n=5877) of PTSD patients, it is found that there is an association between PTSD and psychotic symptoms (Sareen et al., 2005). These researchers found that psychotic symptoms were most common among PTSD. Approximately 52% of people who reported having PTSD at some point in their lifetime also reported experiencing a positive psychotic symptom. Among the PTSD patients,

  1. 27.5% reported to believe that others were spying on them
  2. 19.8% experience hallucinations
  3. 16% tactile hallucinations
  4. 10.5% have persecutory delusions

They also found evidence that some of the following traumatic are most strongly related with the experience of psychotic symptoms:-

  1. Witnessed someone being badly injured or killed
  2. Involved in a fire, flood, or natural disaster
  3. Suffered a great shock because the traumatic event happened to someone close to the respondent

Although in the traditional diagnostic criteria for PTSD does not include the positive psychotic symptom, some mental health professionals believe that the experience of psychotic symptoms should be considered as an addition to that list, given that they commonly occur among people with PTSD. Based on this research, the portrayal of Parry is therefore not inaccurate. It is therefore understandable why Parry become deluded after witnessing his wife’s killed.

Having said that, remember I said that I only partially disagree with the critics? This is because I believe that films are powerful medium for educating the public about psychopathology. They are especially important in influencing the public perception of mental illness (Niemiee, 2005). In addition, because many are relatively not informed about the problems of people with mental disorders, when media misrepresented, or portrayed a complex mental disorder that is only understandable by professionals who had knowledge in the area, may confuse the public. In the case of The Fisher King, the public may misperceive that all PTSD patients have schizophrenia, or schizophrenia can be triggered by traumatic events, which we all know is not true. In my opinion, movies not only have to be accurate in their portrayal of mental disease whenever possible, but also be audience-sensitive in conveying complex diagnostic. In addition, I also appreciate the fact that this movie is filmed in a psychology class to allow students to critically appraise the psychopathology of the mental illness.

References

Sareen, J., Cox, B. J., Goodwin, R. D., & J G Asmundson, G. (2005). Co-occurrence of posttraumatic stress disorder with positive psychotic symptoms in a nationally representative sample. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18(4), 313-322. doi:10.1002/jts.20040

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