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How 'Star Wars' Can Help You Understand Serious Psychotic Disorders

A teaching tool, the movies can be.
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Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader battle in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader battle in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

Depression, gambling addiction, schizophrenia, PTSD: There’s really nothing fun about these serious mental disorders. But psychiatrists and devoted Star Wars fans Ryan C.W. Hall and Susan Hatters Friedman are trying to change that with a series of papers published in Academic Psychiatry that examine these disorders through major Star Wars characters.

Two purposes, this type of unorthodox application serves: It adds a bit of entertainment to the heavy task of studying these conditions, and it allows students and/or patients to have a visual representation of a disorder that’s often just talked about in theory or by symptoms.

"It’s to reinforce. It’s to give a mental image," Hall says. "This is meant to be fun—a tool to teach people of all types, whether it be patients, a medical student who may have no interest in the subject, or for people who are interested in it to just geek out."

Their analysis is open to interpretation, of course, but a few of their major points are as follows: Yoda, with his odd speech pattern, might show signs of surface dyslexia or Williams syndrome, where a deletion of parts of chromosome 7 result in hyper-verbal tendencies, abnormal speech, and an "elfin" appearance; Lando Calrissian is a pathological gambler, having lost the Millennium Falcon to Han Solo before the events of the film, and later betraying Han and Chewie after making a deal with the Empire; C-3PO demonstrates traits of obsessive personality disorder; Darth Vader, who shows "classic coping mechanisms of splitting, projection, and infantile illusions of omnipotence," could have borderline personality disorder, or PTSD; and Jabba the Hutt ... well, he’s just a psychopath.

"Han could be a high-functioning antisocial whose charms have blinded the authors of this paper to his true nature."

The authors also paid close attention to characters who either evolve throughout the film or defy categorization altogether. Luke, for example, initially shows signs of prodromal schizophrenia, or adolescent depression, having lost his parents at an early age and failing to find an identity of his own. His evolution into a young Jedi spurs auditory hallucinations and grandiose claims that he’s the savior of the galaxy, leading to another possible diagnosis of prodromal schizophrenia. While, of course, it turns out that Luke is indeed the savior of the universe, the authors say the teaching point here, about how prodromal schizophrenia is often not evident until after a full-blown psychotic event, holds up.

Han Solo—a practical, hardworking, lovable scoundrel, and the only character who is ambivalent about the rebellion—is notable in the Star Wars universe for defying categorization. "However, Han could be a high-functioning antisocial whose charms have blinded the authors of this paper to his true nature," Hall and Friedman admit.

This all may seem a bit juvenile, applying pop culture to very serious mental issues, but Hall and Friedman have not taken the task lightly. In fact, their paper is split up into two parts—the Light Side and the Dark Side—due to the sheer heft of their analyses. Hall says that when colleagues approach him about his paper, he is not met with criticism, but instead in-depth debates about their pairings.

And there is precedent for this type of analysis. Psychiatrists have used work by the late actress Scarlett O’Hara to teach hysteria. Others have looked at characters from Seinfeld to Winnie the Pooh in similar ways.

"If you had to analyze the personalities of past presidents, that would become a bit problematic," Hall says. "But [Star Wars] is abstract enough. With movies there is limited info to draw from. It allows room for people to play a little—you can do that and no one will get harmed."