Star Wars: a case study in psychiatric disorders?

As fans await the release of The Force Awakens, could Star Wars help teach psychoanalytic concepts in university?

December 16, 2015
Various figures from Star Wars
Source: iStock

Spoiler alert! This article gives away plot lines from earlier Star Wars films, Episodes I-VI

Was Anakin Skywalker’s descent into the Dark Side actually a result of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder?

And as well as being a Jedi warrior and intergalactic hero, is Luke Skywalker an example of acute mental health concerns in angst-ridden adolescents?

These are a few questions posed by a trilogy of papers by two academics who recommend lecturers use Star Wars’ heroes and villains to teach basic psychiatric principles to university students.

Using Star Wars clips in class can communicate effectively key themes of psychology to students because they are “memorable, disarming enough to get past denial and rationalization, but yet relatable enough that trainees understand the concepts”.

That is according to one of the papers by Susan Hatters Friedman, associate professor of psychological medicine at the University of Auckland, and Ryan C. W. Hall, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, titled “Psychopathology in a Galaxy Far, Far Away: the Use of Star Wars’ Dark Side in Teaching”.

Many of the themes addressed in the original six Star Wars movies are “timeless” and “universal”, such as dealing with loss and finding one’s place in the universe, and reference to characters “can become shorthand for a larger concept”, says the paper in Academic Psychiatry.

For instance, Luke Skywalker’s moody behaviour in the original 1977 film Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (not doing chores, hanging out in bars, animal cruelty when “bullseyeing womp rats” on his home planet) might be analysed by students when talking about manifestations of teenage depression.

Luke’s auditory hallucinations and grandiose beliefs that he is saving the galaxy might also point to diagnosis of “prodromal schizophrenia”, later confirmed by his full-blown visions of his deceased mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, the authors suggest.

He may also suffer from Oedipal issues, including castration anxiety, after his “dead-beat absentee father” Darth Vader chops off his hand which is holding a “phallic lightsaber” in The Empire Strikes Back.

“Luke later resolved his complex symbolically when he metaphorically castrated Darth Vader by cutting off his hand holding a similarly phallic lightsaber,” the authors add.

Likewise Luke’s father is a good case study for psychology students, exhibiting classic signs of borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder in addition to his own Oedipal issues.

His choking of his wife Padme – claiming it is a sign of his love – is a good way to explain domestic abuse issues, the authors contend.

Other characters can also aid teaching of psychological concepts.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, as played by Sir Alec Guinness in the original trilogy, might be viewed as a case study of “pseudo-dementia” owing to his inability to remember two droids that played a major part in his adventures 18 years earlier.

His later “suicide-by-Vader” might also be the extension of old-age depression, previously illustrated by his “social isolation, potential lack of motivation, anhedonia, and poor energy for a once vibrant and worldly Jedi master”.

Analysis of his mentor, Qui-Gon Jinn, played by Liam Neeson, might also surprise some Star Wars fans.

His “tend and befriend” approach to the young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace – isolating the would-be Jedi from his friends and family – are illustrative of “grooming” behaviour and could be used to discuss patterns of exploitation, the authors state.

Star Wars characters and clinical issues they could be used to explain

Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader) – Borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, Eriksonian stages of development, intimate partner violence, Oedipal issues (Kronos type)

Jabba the Hutt – Psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder

Boba Fett – Oedipal issues (Hamlet type)

Yoda – dyslexia, malingering

Luke Skywalker – Prodromal schizophrenia

Princess Leia – Histrionic personality disorder

Han Solo – Bias in evaluations

Chewbacca – Orbito-frontal lesions, consideration of cultural norms

Lando Calrissian – Pathological gambling

Padme Amidala – Postnatal delirium v depression

Obi-Wan Kenobi  – Major depression in old age, pseudo-dementia

C3PO  – Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder v dependent personality disorder

Jar Jar Binks – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Qui-Gon Jinn – “Grooming” behaviour

Taken from “Using Star Wars’ supporting characters to teach about psychopathology”, published in Australasian Psychiatry in October 2015

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.