They Got It Right, But Deny The Diagnosis
I have to admit that I have only watched two episodes of the show River (released in November on Netflix), but I am stunned by the portrayal of the main character. River is a cop, a good cop, whose partner dies, and he sees her (and others) and hears their voices. (He suffers from both visual and auditory hallucinations).
Although normally I am disappointed at best and frustrated and hurt at worst with the portrayal of schizophrenia, this time, I think the directors, actors, producers, and writers got it right. Unfortunately, the actor that plays River in the show, Stellan Skarsgard, claims that his character doesn’t have schizophrenia. He said in an interview, “There’s not much research you can do because his condition doesn’t really exist as we know it…It’s a combination of problems, because he is not like people who hear voices – they’re usually schizophrenic and lack empathy and he does not.” Actually, Skarsgard shows his ignorance about schizophrenia in that statement. Schizophrenia manifests itself differently in most people, and it is indeed a combination of problems. If Skarsgard did research on schizophrenia by reading the writing of people who actually have the illness, he would discover that many people with schizophrenia have empathy, and many people like the character Rivers have jobs, and function at a fairly high level.
I think the character is so well done because not only does he have hallucinations that he has to work around, he is socially awkward, and seems to lack social motivation like so many people with schizophrenia. Usually, when other people are around and witness him experiencing and talking back to his hallucinations, there is a delay in his speech which I have found to be common when I hear voices and am shaken out of that singular reality by someone trying to talk to me.
River’s symptoms do not exactly mimic mine though, in my case, I only hear voices when I am psychotic and when I am psychotic I am too terrified with my broken reality to even be aware of other people’s needs (so when I hear voices, it is probably true that I lack empathy), but that is just me. I know other people who live with voices on a daily basis and they manage those voices, and still go to work, have relationships, etc. For example, Eleanor Longden hears voices and has managed to work with and around them.
So far in the series they haven’t said what River’s diagnosis is, but if Skargard’s comments reflect the feeling of everyone who worked on the series, then there is probably no diagnosis coming. In the second episode, River says to a psychologist, that he is forced to talk to after the death of his partner that he was once on medication but no longer takes it.
I plan to watch the rest of this series as soon as I have some free time to binge watch, my only disappointment is that it is the most accurate portrayal of schizophrenia I have ever seen, and the creators deny that it is schizophrenia they are portraying. This is another huge disappointment for those of us who have the most misunderstood mental illness. It seems like the perfect opportunity to help people see an example of someone struggling with hallucinations that still manages to have a job and go about daily life. I wish the creators would have embraced the diagnosis of schizophrenia rather than push it away. Once again, the artists got it wrong (by claiming there is no illness like the one Rivers has), but at least this time the character isn’t a walking stereotype like a genius or mass murder. At least we can be thankful for that.
Police gear photo available from Shutterstock
Chamaa, R. (2015). They Got It Right, But Deny The Diagnosis. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/schizophrenia-life/2015/12/they-got-it-right-but-deny-the-diagnosis/