Psychiatric Hollywood

Psychiatric Hollywood

Green Chinese takeaway boxTakeaways

  • Recognize how emotions can motivate us to engage with ourselves, our own beliefs, and others through self-reflection and dialogue
  • Acknowledge how diagnosis and treatment can stigmatize and oppress marginalized groups and survivors of trauma
  • Understand how fiction and non-fiction art can participate in bearing witness and storytelling

Three green gears working togetherComponents

  1. Psychiatric Hollywood Audio Series
  2. Artist Description by Annalissa Crisostomo

This creative project was an assignment for ‘Creative Empowerment Work with the Disenfranchised’, a course at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, taken in the Winter term, 2020. It involves the use of the arts for consciousness-raising geared toward a particular disenfranchised group – those who have been psychiatrized. 

This short 5-part series is an audio art project that remixes clips from mainstream movies and T.V. shows. Each audio clip has been extracted and taken out of context to weave together a messy, broken and, most importantly, uncomfortable aural journey through power, control and the apathetic silencing of “others”. By deconstructing scripts from film, this piece aims to reproduce a collective narrative that is critical, counter-hegemonic and raises awareness around psychiatric institutionalization.

The audio series can be listened to in class or online. Analysis & context audio segments by Annalissa Crisostomo, the artivist and researcher of this series help contextualize the use of film and audio for consciousness-raising.

Green kitchen weigh scaleEvaluating the Components

Green hand-held magnifying glassLearning Lens

Psychiatric Hollywood uses audio clips from mainstream western film to engage learners in critical thinking regarding dominant ideologies of mental health. The use of various artistic components, including volume and sound, to evoke strong feelings helps initiate conversations around psychiatric issues and forces us to engage with our ‘self’, our own beliefs and how these beliefs are rooted in dominant values.

Artist and researcher Annalissa Crisostomo has been using the arts to support her own healing in various ways. Unable to access long-term counselling or legal justice, she founded a Spoken Word & Hip Hop club built on the principles of education and resistance that marks hip-hop culture and social justice art. Here, she fell in love with art activism (or ‘artivism’) and the power it had to support meaning-making and healing processes.

Psychiatric Hollywood was created under the principles of collage-making, a prominent tool to support meaning-making processes because it takes different parts and forms to make a new whole. By taking different parts of fictional and non-fictional TV shows and films, Annalissa strings together one collective aural journey through processes of labelling and diagnosis. Although it is extremely important to challenge depictions and false representations found within film and other media, Annalissa also saw an opportunity to piece together scenes and quotes that would reflect the reality and experiences of oppressed and marginalized groups who have been psychiatrized throughout history, and still are today.

Other HiP units address expectations of “normal”, but this unit explores how these standards of “normal” (or “abnormal”) can pathologize and institutionalize the spectrum of responses to trauma, or even be weaponized to control particular oppressed groups. What is important to note is how dominant ideologies can often be rooted in power, historical prejudice and discrimination that impact how we “treat”, view, and approach the spectrum of mental difference and affections. By confronting this dominance and challenging its legitimacy we can begin to seek alternatives and/or replacements for harmful actions enacted on oppressed groups, no matter the original intent.

Green kitchen weigh scaleComponents in Context: A History of Violence and Oppression

It’s important to provide historical context for why and how Psychiatric Hollywood participates in storytelling and bearing witness, whether the films used are fiction or non-fiction. The history of madness and psychiatry within the western context is feathered with oppression, violence and inhumane treatment. By tracing some of the historical lineages of current diagnoses and treatments, we can recognize how power has been and still continues to be executed over people, especially black folks, indigenous folks, queer folks, women and the poor.

Like many components of westernized culture, psychiatry can be traced back to Greek theorists who medicalized behaviours by viewing psychic issues as ‘medical’ problems. Hippocrates (460 BC- 370 BC), for example, created the prototype for biological psychiatry by attributing affections and behaviours to an imbalance of bodily fluids or ‘humours’. Various conditions (such as mania, paranoia and melancholia) and treatments (such as bloodletting, purging, and application of hot and cold water) have been and continue to be built under this tradition of disorder. 

The proliferation of a bio-medical model of mental health has made it easier for oppressed groups to be controlled by weaponizing diagnosis to establish dominance and uphold traditional ideologies such as white supremacy, colonialism, and patriarchy. For example, doctors have often associated special types of ‘madness’ with women’s sexual or reproductive anatomy, such as hysteria – which was originally conceived to be caused by the movement of the uterus wandering around and bumping other organs and causing a rise in ‘tumultuous passion’. Such psychiatric stereotyping of the female transcends history. Today, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a diagnosis more frequently ascribed to women than men, often stigmatizing their affections as ‘wild’ and/or ‘extreme’, and without consideration of social inequalities and routine traumas disproportionately affecting them, such as domestic abuse and sexual violence. 

The oppression of individuals and communities by ‘medical doctors’ has taken many forms of management throughout history. Black folks, indigenous folks and queer folks have also been, and still are, victim to ‘diagnosis’ and treatment that deny their identities, experiences and histories. For example, Drapetomania, coined in 1851, was a mental illness attributed to those enslaved who attempted to run away (their desire to escape being the ‘symptom’), where its corresponding prescribed ‘treatment’ was physical abuse such as whipping. This diagnosis and treatment was used as a way to justifiably control black folks and their narratives about themselves, including their human need to live freely. Even conversion therapy (that still exists across North America today) pathologizes the experiences of the LGBTQ2+ community, as it seeks to “repair” or change one’s sexual or gender identity/expression through drugs, re-parenting techniques, and negative stimuli. One of the more overtly violent contemporary procedures has been the pre-frontal lobotomy/leucotomy (first performed in the United States by Walter Freeman in 1936), which is a surgical procedure severing the connections in the brain’s frontal lobe that works to make the patients more manageable by altering their personality or incapacitating them. These examples illustrate the swooping power of institutions to oppress marginalized groups and maintain their practices as humane and liberatory.

By contextualizing this audio art within the backdrop of power and control, we can begin to uncover how some of these film depictions of madness, and psychiatry’s violence (often viewed as neutral and benevolent in western society), may participate in practices of truth-telling and bearing witness by reflecting many of the individual or collective experiences of oppressed groups that have been psychiatrized and/or institutionalized throughout history and today.