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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Ordinary People

Introduction

This is a film about the sudden death of a teenager and the psychological effect that the loss has on each remaining family member.  It provides a portrait of depression, and possible post-traumatic stress disorder, in a teenager, in the context of a family that can’t communicate effectively.

 

Ordinary People also captures the essence of the relationship between patient and therapist as the process of psychotherapy is shown to unfold between the teenager and his psychiatrist. One interesting anachronism in the film is that the psychiatrist is seen smoking during almost every session, reminding us just how much has changed since 1980.

Ordinary People

 

Based on a book by Judith Guest and directed by Robert Redford in 1980, Ordinary People won four Oscars and attracted critical acclaim. After the film’s release, Redford also received many letters of praise from psychiatrists in America, who were pleased that their profession was shown in a better light than was usual in the movies.

 

This film was Robert Redford's directorial debut and he is quoted as saying about it: "Ordinary People has lots of colors. It is a picture of behavior, about something of depth. It has to do with the family unit, which interests me. And with people who keep their lives in perfect order — they interest me. It's about the effort to communicate by a young person through the fog of social structures he's raised in. I don't know what this picture will say to teenagers but I hope it has a message for their parents. I hope it tells them loud and clear to listen to what their children have to say."

The Film

Ordinary People is set in upper-middle class suburban America (Illinois), where the Jarrett family have lived a seemingly ‘perfect’ life until the sudden death of their eldest son,  Buck, in a boating accident which also involved their younger son Conrad, who survives.

 

The film begins with scenes that show the family trying to get on with their lives but revealing that just below the surface lies a profound lack of communication. Mother, Beth, is desperate to keep up appearances in public and show that all is now well. It becomes apparent, however, that Conrad is struggling with insomnia, flashbacks, isolation at college and an inability to ‘play happy families’. His father, Calvin, seems more attuned to his son’s difficulties and encourages him to seek help from a psychiatrist, Dr Berger. At this point it becomes clear that Conrad has been in hospital for four months following a suicide attempt.

 

The ‘back story’ is told through Conrad’s twice weekly therapy sessions with Dr Berger and reveals that Buck, a successful athlete, was always his mother’s favourite while Conrad struggled to feel love from her.  This feeling of rejection by his mother seems to have worsened since the death of Buck and the film shows us evidence to support this belief.

 

Conrad is gradually enabled to express many unspoken feelings about the relationship with his mother as well as his survivor guilt and rage about the boating accident and his brother’s death.  The complex transformation that begins to take hold in Conrad is well illustrated and leads to changes in his father Calvin too.

 

We see Conrad begin to recover optimism as he starts dating a sensitive, nonjudgmental girl from school but an unexpected event threatens his improving mental state.  He turns in crisis to Dr Berger at this point and is helped to recognise the damaging effect of his unspoken resentment and anger toward his mother. In the confrontation that follows between Conrad and Beth we find out that she never visited him in the psychiatric hospital.  This exchange is witnessed by Calvin, who begins to question his relationship with his wife as he observes her coldness toward Conrad.

 

The final scenes are not ‘Happy ever after’ but are grounded in Calvin and Conrad experiencing the beginnings of an honest and truthful relationship between parent and teenage child.

 

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

This film, in the broadest sense, explores the varied responses of different personality types struggling to work through their grief. It is also about a family trying to deal with the aftermath of their surviving son’s suicide attempt and ongoing depression.  It highlights the importance of good communication within families as the film gradually uncovers the significant difficulties that were present between the members of the Jarrett family before the accident. Under stress these difficulties become magnified.

Ordinary People provides a wonderful starting point for a discussion about the indications for individual psychotherapy and family therapy and accurately illustrates the psychological resistance of a family member to any form of outside intervention that can so seriously interfere with the healing of the whole family.

 

By using the scenes of the therapy to tell the ‘back story’, the film cleverly mirrors the way in which information is often revealed over a period of time during psychodynamic psychotherapy, with neither the therapist nor the patient knowing the complete story at the start.  It also demonstrates the importance, to the therapist, of observing when and how a patient chooses to disclose particular information and offers a very good understanding of the processes involved in discovering hidden emotions and allowing them to find expression.

 

Finally, Ordinary People highlights the stigma that still surrounds psychiatric treatment for many people and perhaps helps us to understand why there is an urgent need to encourage awareness amongst young people about depression, suicidal feelings and the help that is available.  For an excellent review of the topic of self-harm in adolescents, I can recommend the article by Alison Wood in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment last November.

 

There is plenty of information for young people about all aspects of mental health on the Royal College of Psychiatrists website and a booklet is available to download on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), specifically for young people in the UK.

 

Any member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists interested in recording their view about the portrayal of the psychiatrist in this film or any other film can cast a vote in the survey set up by psychiatrist, Dr Peter Byrne, at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/50films, in preparation for a Top 50 Psychiatry Film series beginning in the BJPsych in 2011.

 

(Thanks to my colleague D.G. for suggesting this film to me).

 

  • Further information about Ordinary People can be found at IMDB, and a short trailer can be viewed here.
  • The DVD is available to purchase at amazon.co.uk.

Minds on Film blog is written by Dr Joyce Almeida.

 

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About this blog

 

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.