‘Crazy’: Courageous Documentary about Forced Psychiatric Treatment

The issue of control is front and center in Crazy, Lise Zumwalt’s new documentary.


“I’ve always been interested in stories where there is a tension between social policy and law and individual rights—and mental illness is a great lens to look at that tension,” says Zumwalt, who has produced, written and edited films for National Geographic, PBS, BBC and several other major media outlets.

Crazy follows Eric, a young adult diagnosed with serious mental illness, and his father. The two of them want to change Eric’s treatment; however, the county does not want to give them a say. In Madison, Wisconsin, a reputed bastion of progressive thinking, Eric, his father and Eric’s attorney are all powerless in their attempt to create a more collaborative treatment plan.

Eric’s father concludes, “The record is very clear. He was at his worst when he’s had the most medication he’s ever gotten in terms of antipsychotics.” After Eric sees his hands tremoring, he worries about tardive dyskinesia, an adverse effect of his antipsychotic medication. Eric and his father are not demanding Eric be taken off his medication, merely that his dosage be lowered.

This is a story about who is going to control Eric’s treatment. On one side are Eric, his father and his attorney, who argue for Eric’s right to have a say in his own treatment. On the other side are the county’s evaluating psychologist and social worker, who explain why forced treatment is necessary. Further complicating the issue are disagreements between Eric’s parents, which cause tension for Eric.

In the film, a leading psychiatrist states that individuals diagnosed with severe mental illness lack insight into their problems, resulting in them rejecting the notion that they need help. However, Crazy shows how the county not only deprives Eric of having any power over his own treatment, but also his father, a physician and keen observer of his son.

Zumwalt has great access to the drama that unfolds. We see Eric making the decision to refuse medication and becoming an “outlaw,” hiding out in a hotel, and then being taken away to a psychiatric hospital, which is not only unhelpful but traumatizing for him. For the most part, Eric’s altered states, when he does experience them, are not violent and do not cause problems for him. However, when Eric attempts to go off his antipsychotic medication cold turkey without tapering, he does have problematic consequences.

Crazy is bittersweet. For Eric, there is a sane solution that enables him to graduate from college and gain the autonomy he had been deprived of. But the film may well be bitter for others who have been in Eric’s position and lacked his “dream team” of a determined physician father and a tenacious ethical attorney, as well as the social pressure of being the subject of a documentary film. The overwhelming majority of people in Eric’s position lack any kind of backing.

One message of Crazy is that fear makes all of us crazy. Families are understandably frightened when one of their members begins acting crazy, and families can get even more frightened by a serious mental illness diagnosis such as schizophrenia. Fear makes for a crazy political landscape, which pits medicating authorities against patients and patients’ rights advocates who are often labeled as naïve or irresponsible.

Why don’t we see more major films such as Crazy that honestly explore this issue? It goes back to fear. Intimidated by the possibility of being labeled as irresponsible, filmmakers avoid this terrain or change facts so as to fit a politically correct narrative, as Ron Howard did in A Beautiful Mind. In Howard’s film version of the life of mathematician John Nash (played by Russell Crowe), a recovered Nash states, “I take the newer medications.” However, Sylvia Nasar’s book, A Beautiful Mind, states that Nash stopped taking medication in 1970 because of the way it blunted his intellect, and in an interview before his death in 2015, Nash confirmed he had stopped taking medication.

Why did Howard change the facts? The Guardian reported in 2015, “The change was apparently made because the screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, whose mother was a prominent psychologist, was worried that the film might persuade people to stop taking their medication. There were also rumors that the National Alliance on Mental Illness put pressure on the filmmakers to include the line about medication.”

Zumwalt tells us that her original view of people diagnosed with schizophrenia was the view of many Americans—that if these patients just took their medication, they would be fine and so would society. However, she discovered that this is not always the case.

“The film is not anti-medication, it’s pro-choice,” Zumwalt makes clear. Her film is fair, balanced and committed to the truth. She is honest about how frightening altered states can be in our society, and she is also honest about how society can do great damage by allowing fear to sanction forced treatments that can worsen conditions and result in powerlessness and resentment.

Ultimately, Crazy provides evidence that the tension between societal rights and the individual rights of people diagnosed with serious mental illness can be resolved in a sane and humane way, if only we can have respectful collaboration.

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