One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is widely given credit for irreparably tarnishing the image of electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, in society. This film definitely hastened the treatment’s departure from mainstream mental health care. This clearly illustrates the impact that the cinema can have on public opinion and the impact that public opinion can have on even relatively scientific fields like medicine.
In the story, R.P. McMurphy, played by Jack Nicolson, is a misbehaved convict who ends up in an asylum after faking insanity to escape hard labor while in prison. Like other patients in the facility, he is the subject of ECT treatments. As stated by a nurse in the film, the treatment “might be said to do the work of the sleeping pill, the electric chair and the torture rack. It’s a clever little procedure, simple, quick, nearly painless it happens so fast, but no one ever wants another one. Ever.”
Dr Frank Pittman, a famous Americanpsychiatrist, has said the release of the film “had an enormous effect” on his field. According to him, “It gave voice, gave life, to a basic distrust of the way in which psychiatry was being used for society’s purposes, rather than the purposes of the people who had mental illness,”
This film arguably began the widespread societal backlash against the entire psychiatric treatment system in the United States, and especially against large psychiatric institutions that were largely unregulated by state or federal laws. Though this film is classified as a drama, it certainly utilizes some horror film techniques and aspects, especially during scenes involving the use of ECT and other treatments. The horror aspects terrified the viewers of the film, but perhaps what was more terrifying is that the treatments used in the film were all real and actual treatments used in psychiatric wards. The realization that Cuckoo’s Nest leaned more in the direction of documentary that horror fiction helped spur the revolution for change in the psychiatric treatment industry. Not only did this film tarnish the view of ECT treatment in the viewers minds, but also catalyzed the development of more effective anti-psychotic drugs that allowed more patients to be treated at home and live more normal lives.
However, for many mental health professionals, the film also had a negative effect. A 1983 study involving 146 university students found “considerable negative changes in attitude” towards people with mental health problems among those who had seen the film. The extreme symptoms and disconcerting behaviors of the patients in the film fostered fear of those with mental illnesses. The main characters ability to fake his mental illness so effectively also furthered the widespread opinion that mental illness is not a legitimate medical condition, nor a valid reason to avoid usual legal punishment.