A recent article from Live Science showed that Darth Vader succumbed to the Dark Side because of psychological issues. Star Wars and clinical psychology? You just have to read this.

***

I love going through my RSS feeds. Even if I’m not one to read the updates  everyday, there’s something about knowing there’s a whole slew of information that’s  already prepared for your reading. Couple that with a cup of hot chocolate and you’ll have yourself the perfect rainy day formula too.

The Psychology of Darth Vader Revealed was the most recent article that caught my eye. It cites research that Darth Vader, by way of his behavior throughout the six-part series, can be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Of course, I was intrigued; it’s rare to see “psychology”  and  a Star Wars reference in one line.

I have to agree, the concept of analyzing fictional characters for mental illness is certainly an interesting one. I’d imagine watching movies with Coke and a bag of chips and writing it off as vigorously working in the name of science. In this case, Anakin’s fall into the Dark side, as the research had pointed out, was inevitable because of his mental illness (and not his bad acting).

I believe that the researchers have passed some rigorous scientific standards given that it was a published work. But I’d like to point out that though the approach is kinda creative, there are some concerns that we should be aware of:

1. Diagnosis should go hand-in-hand with assessment

The reason psychiatrists and clinical psychologists just don’t go out and “read” people is because they need to corroborate evidence before agreeing on a particular diagnosis. We have a whole bunch of interviewing protocols, projective techniques, and assessment tools to make sure that the final diagnosis is, at the very least, a reasonable one.

The problem with assessing fictional character is that everything is, well, just based on the interpretations of the observer. Although evidence can be linked by citing scenes from the particular movie, there is no way to corroborate one’s observations by asking the characters. You can’t ask Anakin to take a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Test. You can’t even create a social experiment that will make you sure that Trigger A really causes Behavior B. The evidence, at best, will only be circumstantial.

2. Borderline Personality Disorder is very hard to diagnose

According to the latest revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder is:

A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

(1) frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment;

(2) a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating extremes of idealization and devaluation;

(3) identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self;

(4) impulsivity in at least 2 areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g. spending, sex, substance abuse);

(5) recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior;

(6) affective instability due to marked reactivity of mood;

(7) chronic feelings of emptiness;

(8) inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger; or

(9) transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.

What the DSM doesn’t tell you is that diagnosing people with mental illness is not as easy ticking off some checklist. First, you’d have to understand what each criteria means and what examples are appropriate for every one. For example, the article pointed out that BPD “is fairly frequent in teens” omitting the fact that it’s not abnormal for a teenager to clarify his identity; anyone who has gone through high school has intimate knowledge of soul-searching complete with angsty songs and cultural fads.

Second, you have to know how to assess each criteria appropriately. For example, what does it mean to have “chronic feelings of emptiness”? And when can you say that a particular behavior is “a frantic effort to avoid real or imagined abandonment”? These are things that you cannot assess via observation alone. You’d have to talk with the client, employ assessment tools, or use projective techniques to understand what’s on his mind.

Given that we only have the behavior of Anakin to rely on, we can only midly suggest that he has some form of mental illness, with specifics that are parallel to that of borderline personality disorder. In short, we aren’t sure.

3. Borderline Personality Disorder is a catch-all label

Although the main indicators of BPD include instability (in mood, self-concept, and social relationships) and self-damaging behavior, it is still a very complex disorder to diagnose. Clinicians maintain that there are varied ways by which BPD can manifest from person to person. One study even pointed out that there are at least 126 ways that an individual can meet the criteria for BPD.

The symptoms of BPD are also similar to other illnesses, enough that BPD can be diagnosed in conjunction with another mental disorders. It is not uncommon to diagnose BPD as comorbid (i.e. occurring with) substance abuse, generalized anxiety disorder, simple phobias, agoraphobia, posttraumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, depression, or somatization disorder.

Even the label borderline speaks of its many identities; for years, people who cannot be easily categorized into other existing diagnostics were just lumped under BPD. With this, even clinicians themselves have great difficulty agreeing what really constitutes borderline personality disorder. How can we  even be sure of a diagnosis when the actual label presents itself as ‘flexible’?

***

I’m sure the researchers did their job and had presented their work in the best way possible. Research in psychology is a realm of proxies anyway because it is very hard to operationalize its concepts. If I really wanted to perform an assessment and diagnose a fictional character , I’d probably pursue a similar line of thought.

But while doing so, I’d have to constantly remind myself that, as one of the commenters have said, it’s only a thought experiment and may or may not be parallel to real life. Given the complexites of the disorder and the dangers of incorrect diagnosis, I’d tread carefully if I want to use Star Wars to educate people about mental health.

***

Notes:

1. The DSM-IV-TR was not meant to be read by the lay public so there are interim books that you could read instead. I recommend Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema’s Abnormal Psychology for easy reading.

2. If you’re a lot more adventurous, I suggest you read Kaplan and Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry, North American Edition. It’s the textbook we use at grad school, and is a great reference for upcoming clinicians.

3. A copy of the journal article Is Anakin Skywalker suffering from borderline personality disorder? in which all this is based  can be bought at ScienceDirect.

4. I’d like to hear from you! Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Advertisements