Brain on Fire

“How many people do you think throughout history were diagnosed as schizophrenic, psychotic, bipolar, or maybe just plain crazy when they had something that could’ve been so easily diagnosed?”

For my mental health related movie/tv show project, I decided to watch the movie Brain on Fire that was released in 2016. This movie is biographical and is based on Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. In short, if follows the main character, Susannah, as she navigates life as a 20-something in New York City as a newspaper journalist. 

Book review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by ...

Slowly throughout the beginning of the film, it follows her as she seems to disassociate from herself before experiencing several seizures. She sees bumps on her arms that a doctor couldn’t see and thinks the sink is dripping when it wasn’t, all leading her to more and more doctors. During the film, her mother says, “She was not herself, I mean I didn’t recognize her looking into her eyes. I mean, she’s looking at me, and I can tell that she’s not there… It’s like she was in a trance or… I don’t know. I can’t explain it.” All of the tests returned negative; one doctor blamed it on alcohol withdraw. 

At her first visit to a psychiatrist, she states that she thinks she has bipolar disorder, which the doctor didn’t make a diagnosis of. He said that “I do see signs of mixed episodes. Meaning extremely high highs and very low lows…” but didn’t make a formal diagnosis. The interesting part I thought was the fact that even though there wasn’t a diagnosis, he still prescribed medication Olanzapine (“anti-psychotic used to treat mood and thought disorders”).

After being admitted to the hospital, she thinks she has multiple personality disorder. A doctor then assumes two possible diagnoses. Schizophrenia or postictal psychosis; stating, “she is clearly psychotic, but where is this psychotic behavior coming from?” This is the first time a doctor asks that question of “where is this coming from?” The same doctor asks Susanna’s parents to investigate bringing her to a psych hospital. Again and again, doctors are searching for more neurological causes as the physical ones are eliminated one by one and as her condition worsens.

One doctor begins to fight for her, believing that is not psychiatric and calls in another outside doctor. He believed that the right side of her brain was impaired; the way that she drew a clock ruled out any psychiatric diagnosis. The doctor believed the inflammation was the cause of all of her symptoms. She was eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease; “to put it simply, her brain is on fire. It’s under attack from her own body.”

Her father asked the question of, “how can you just arrive at this conclusion without all of the facts?” Her parents kept fighting and fighting for the right answer alongside the doctor; not every patient has this support and may end up in a psychiatric hospital because of that. I feel as if this is a question that can be asked throughout the examination of the sources and experiences of this class. As we move further into medicine, things become clearer, but this question is one that can overarch the entirety of this class. The misdiagnosis of patients has been clear and is a problem that will continue to be fixed with time. 

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