Sep 25

“Ratched”: Its Depiction of Mental Illness

With a mental hospital as its setting, we soon learn that every character in the show has some sort of vice or addiction or mental health problem. Kellen M. Quigley, Olean Times Herald, regarding Ratched

Fans of Milos Forman‘s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and/or Ryan Murphy productions may feel eager to tune into Season One of the new prequel, Ratched (Netflix), starring Sarah Paulson as Nurse Mildred Ratched.

How are mental illness and mental health treatment portrayed in Ratched? The following post presents review excerpts addressing these questions.

But first, an intro. Linda Holmes, NPR:

The messy eight-episode first season of the Netflix horror thriller (a second season is on the way) creates a backstory for Nurse Ratched, the heartless villain who has McMurphy lobotomized in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s NestRatched succeeds as a compendium of stunning images, but that’s about it. As a story, it is nonsensical, self-indulgent and unsuccessful at saying anything about Ratched herself except something along the lines of ‘people do the darnedest things.’

All reviews I’ve found that specifically address the portrayal of mental health and illness are likewise critical of Ratched. A sampling:

Laura Bogart, “The show purports to be, at least nominally, about the horrors enacted against vulnerable mentally ill people, but it traffics in the most pernicious stereotypes against mental illness—specifically, that it makes people dangerous.”

Caroline Framke, Variety: “…(T)he hospital’s revolving door of patients combined with the show’s slippery grasp of mental illness and disabilities makes ‘Ratched’ feel like a grab bag of trauma rather than even a cursory examination of how badly unwell people have been treated and misunderstood over the years.”

Robert Daniels, Polygon: “…(I)nstead of engendering empathy for the mentally ill, Murphy’s Ratched does exactly the opposite.”

Examples of Unfortunate Characterizations

Robert Daniels, Polygon:

Ratched relies on troubling stereotypes. Huck is kind and generous to a fault, but he’s disfigured by burns on the left side of his face. Mildred treats him as a hapless angel, even going so far as to say his life lacks purpose — an old stereotype about special-needs patients. The series also assumes people with mental-health issues naturally pose a risk to others. Sophie Okenedo is thrilling as Charlotte, a Black woman with multiple personality disorder stemming from racial trauma, but she’s also painted as menacing. Why is a Black woman made permanently dangerous, while Mildred — a white woman with her own traumas — allowed to change?

Angelica Jade Bastién, Vulture:

Sophie Okonedo as Charlotte Wells, a woman beset by the most insulting rendition of multiple personality disorder (now referred to as dissociative identity disorder) I have seen in a very long time, gives a sloppy, loud performance that harshly underlines the failures of the writing: the insistence on shifting characters dramatically to fit the plot comes to a head with her character. It’s deeply uncomfortable to watch such a caricature of a mentally ill woman, especially one who becomes violent in ways that mischaracterizes these very real experiences.

For a brief informative note about dissociative identity disorder (DID), see this previous post.

Portrayal of Mental Health Treatments

Such methods as hydrotherapy and lobotomies were actually used in the 1940’s, the setting of Ratched. Many reviewers have found these scenes particularly hard to watch.

David Craig, RadioTimes: “Ratched’s depiction of hydrotherapy is really rather horrifying, used in a sickening bid to ‘cure’ a lesbian woman of what was then viewed as a psychological condition.”

Marina Watts, Newsweek, who offers a list of “Every Super-Gross and Super-Gory Thing…” that occurs in Ratched (not all of which are examples of mental health treatment) describes several horrific lobotomy procedures.