The film Ordinary people (1980), directed by Robert Redfort is about a psychological drama of the Jarrett family related to the death of an elder son, who drowned in a boat wreck. The issue touches three members of the family. After the suicide attempt, the younger son Conrad has been issued from the mental institution and is now going through a series of private sessions with a psychologist. The father, Calvin, seeks to take all the guilt on himself in order to cover the pain by forgiving others hurting his own feelings. The mother, Beth, is a self-centered person, who seeks resolution by denying the problem and locking herself up from the others.
This film represents a typical psychological drama genre. It emphasizes the elements of discussing the issue presenting the fact point by point in order to resolve the psychological deterioration of the characters and mainly explaining the cause of its’ occurrence. Such type of films usually brings up a very tense mood while viewing it, and activates the person’s background knowledge about human psychological, emotional and social norms, hyperbolically illuminating them through the prism of vivid typical examples of human behavior. Despite the realistic base of psychological drama as a genre, the image of mental illnesses or mental deterioration in such types of film should not be perceived literally as the truth.
Psychological drama implies to a development of self-disclosure of the film character(s) in order to find the truth behind the reasons of mental instability. In my opinion, this film discusses the stories of each member of the family, leading them through the dynamic of the psychological process of accepting the drama occurred in their life-transforming their mentality as they go through denial, anger, fear, grief, and finally closing with acceptance.
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Taking a look at the youngest son and analyzing his psychological state one can state that the circumstances affected his mental stability in a negative way, forcing him to go through a nervous breakdown and labeling him to be perceived as a person having a mental illness. I believe that he did not have a mental disorder, either at the beginning of the film or at the end. However, it is clear that the boy needed both socio-emotional and psychological help in order to understand his state, his pain, and resolve the conflict with himself.
As indicated previously, Conrad may perform some symptoms of clinical depression, and be perceived as mentally ill for the reasons of the circumstances, which have caused a mental tensity and have resulted in a nervous breakdown. However, while analyzing his behavior the mental illness cannot be identified.
Second, analyzing the father who seems to be a completely healthy man also has some symptoms of mental distress. Trying to deal with his son’s death, he takes all the blame on himself. In fact, he does not only blame himself for the death of the son, but also for all the negative circumstances resulting from it. For instance, he protects his younger son from the blaming attitude of his mother, tries to understand and forgive the withdrawing and somewhat hostile reaction from the side of the mother, and seeks to forgive them despite the gravity of their attitudes.
Third, the behavior of the mother is the most difficult to identify as being the result of the serious stressful situation. From one point of view, one can say that she acts as a completely normal person, and has gone over the problem in a rather good way. Nonetheless, this is exactly what should be viewed as a symptom of mental distress. Such fast recovery is a symptom of a deeper problem within the senesce of the person. The mother does not only deny the death of the elder son but also tries to live each day as nothing has happened, burying her fear, grief and anger deep down her subconscious. She lets all her negative emotions out on her younger son, transferring all the blame onto him for the accident. In addition, she closes up within herself, without letting anyone in to help, or at least comfort her.
Each separate character’s situation is uniquely interesting to analyze. However, in order to better understand the subject of mental illness in the Ordinary people a full DSM-IV-TR profile of Conrad is needed. Axis I: the Clinical Disorders and Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention. Regarding Conrad as the subject, he performs some form of social anxiety, mood swings, depression, and some traits of adjustment disorder. Analyzing the boy by Axis II: Personality Disorders and Mental Retardation, one can say that Conrad uses some level of defense mechanisms, however, no vivid traits of mental retardation or striking personality disorders can be noted. According to Axis III: General Medical Conditions, the best suggestion for Conrad would be taking the sedatives or anti-depressants, combined with the talks with the psychiatrist as well as the friends and family support. Axis IV: Psychosocial and Environmental Problems, one can report that the mental dysfunctions that have occurred to the boy have had the place do to the life circumstances which were completely out of his personal control and resulted in a traumatizing experience. By the Axis V: Global Assessment of Functioning one might rate Conrad’s state at 27 at the beginning of the film and at around 67 by the end of the film according to the Global Assessment of Functioning scale.
In most people’s opinion, the individuals with mental illnesses behave a certain way, which differs from what they are used to call “normal” drastically. Nonetheless, the question is: what is “normal” and how do we know it? We consider a particular set of common behavior as to be the example, the threshold. Any behavior, which goes behind this threshold and seems strange, awkward or unusual, atypical is judged as abnormal and can be concluded to have some mental deterioration. According to Halgin & Whitbourne (2010), abnormal behavior includes such elements as “impairment”, “maladaptive behaviors that prevent an individual from functioning in daily life can be considered abnormal”; “distress”, “if the individual suffers discomfort as a result of the behaviors and wish to get rid of them”; “risk to self or other people”, “When an individual‘s actions pose a threat to one‘s own life or to the life of others, the behavior is considered to be abnormal”; and “socially and culturally unacceptable behavior”, “that are not in line with the social or cultural norms are considered abnormal. Certain behaviors may be acceptable in some cultures”.
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For instance, in the film, Conrad was somewhat distant and withdrawn from usual activities and sometimes hostile towards other children. Swimming was his passion. It was not a hobby, but a lifestyle, which took a great part of his life. However, after the death of his brother, swimming was no longer interesting for him, and did not impose such a great importance in his life. Conrad experiences the symptoms of distress and wishes to cease swimming, as it brings him major discomfort, despite the fact that it has always been his passion. Also, a similar situation has happened in the scene where his friends from his swimming team find out that he dropped off. He is no longer interested in supporting the friendship and prefers to wait back by himself, which is an atypical behavior for him. Socially, it is an unusual behavior.
Another example is his hostile response and anger towards others in many situations. Just like he lets out his anger onto the psychiatrist, which leads to a complete catharsis, he also lets his anger onto his mother when she does not want to take a picture with him, and also when she finds out about him, dropping of the swimming team. Such letting out of the emotions can be assigned as a symptom for many mental illnesses, however, does not assure their development in an individual. Conrad is expressing the risk for himself, as when he had tried to kill himself, and others, as when he takes out his anger onto another person. However, believing that the described behaviors are the symptoms of the development of mental illnesses in real life is a very wrong opinion.
Nonetheless, having a rather entertaining role than a scientific with the psychological background, this film represents more common stereotypes than the actual syndromes of mental illnesses. For instance, the stereotype of “maternal deprivation”, the term which defines the state when a child seeks revenge for the lack of expression of love, care, and time spent to one’s parents can be noted in the behavior of Conrad. The stereotypes of depression are also well expressed in the film. Such major stereotypical behaviors of depression as lack of appetite, mood swings, and hostility are well performed in the film. Another stereotype about mental illnesses that people with mental disorders are dangerous to the community and should be isolated is also portrayed in the film. Assuming the answer to the above is “yes”, people try to avoid Conrad, and they should not have, as these perceptions are actually false.
In the film, the portrayal of Conrad was rather sympathetic. It can be seen from many instances. For instance, being a loner in his tragedy, Conrad seeks help. The first person, who reaches the hand of help, was his psychiatrist, who by the end of the film sympathizes him and becomes his friend. Also, he gains a girl-friend, who has been known to go through a similar situation in her life and is now preaching Conrad about how to cope with his own problems.
Other than that the majority of the people whom Conrad encounters throughout the film perceives him as mentally ill, and tries to stay away from him. His parents act also in accordance with the situation: his mother becomes extremely forgiving, while the mother closes her affection and care to her younger son. His friends have resigned from this post blaming him for leaving the team and letting them lose. However, throughout the film the behavior towards Conrad changes in many ways. He reconciles with most of his contacts and becomes closer to his father.
In overall, being an entertaining film, Ordinary people carries little of scientific facts about mental illnesses. For this many symptoms have been applied for the reason of the interest of the viewer than rather performing the truth about this matter. Some messages have been sending mixed signals; therefore it was hard to diagnose the characters accurately. In addition, the actors’ play often has a negative aspect for defining the symptoms of mental illnesses they suffer from, as they add from their own character, interrupting the development of the actual character. Treatment of the patient can be attributed not only to his psychiatrists but also his environment. In my opinion, the girl-friend has had a major impact on the state of the boy and helped him to get better. In addition, the non-business relationship between the psychiatrist and Conrad has also made a great push towards the amelioration in his state. However, this cannot be said about Conrad’s family. Whereas the father has been transforming with the boy throughout the film, the mother has deteriorated in her case. For the better understanding of the problem of mental illness I would have added more instances with Conrad mother and the nature of their conflicts, as well as his actual schooling, while he is during the classes. These pieces of the puzzle would have been the missing parts for diagnosing this jigsaw. This film is better presented to the students who are taking psychology classes for analysis and research of the psychology and the nature of the characters’ behaviors. It is extremely useful as an exercise to define the types of mental illness.
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The documentary Depression: Out of the Shadows describes in detail the mental illness as from within. The documentary is devoted to the horrible feelings people feel while being mentally ill. It takes the issues apart piece by piece and looks at the parts under a very precise lens. The documentary emphasized the multi-dimensional aspects of depression as a mental disease, which can be cured with some help. After seeing this documentary I still suggest that the issue of mental illness was not fully disclosed in the film Ordinary People. I believe this is so due to the lack of depression experience by the character. I would have suggested to add more scenes describing the mood swings, tearing from within memories, or disinterest in the life in general. For instance, while in the doctor’s office, it would have been more interesting to see what thoughts are going on in Conrad’s head. Also, the same approach could have been added to the scene where Conrad tells his couch that he is leaving sports. Instead, Conrad was just sitting in the office with rather calm and indifferent face. However, it is clear that if the film had included all the major symptoms of depression, it would not have been interesting.
I believe that the film Ordinary people could have become the Part 2 for the documentary Depression: Out of the Shadows. All three members of the family could have told their stories and described their feelings in order for scientists to learn more about various types of depression. The film Ordinary people is viewed as a sort of confession of the mental illness people presented from three different perspectives. I think it would have done a brilliant documentary about depression and how to deal with it.
However, I do not think that this film could have become a good comedy about depression. Depression is a serious case, which is better not being laughed about. In addition, there are so many types of depression and symptoms, so that the jokes about this disease would be so sophisticated that little people would understand them. The Ordinary people is a good example of psychological drama genre that brings a unique flare about those times and orders, as well as three unique dramatic stories responding to the same drama.