The film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” effectively walks the audience through the process of how mental institutions “rehabilitate” mentally-disordered patients. The character of Randle McMurphy serves as an unwilling witness to the inhumane treatment that the hospital staff gives the patients. McMurphy himself is not officially diagnosed as mentally ill but was brought to the hospital as a consequence of his serious and grave misconduct in the work farm he came from. Hence, mentally, he is fit and capable of seeing anomalies in the system.
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At the outset, McMurphy swaggers in to blend with the patients, his strong personality inevitably promoting him to be the group leader. His vivacious and non-conformist spirit empowers the patients to likewise express themselves rocking the “well-steered” boat captained by Nurse Ratched. This head nurse apparently represents the whole mental health care system – cool and unperturbed by the strange and occasionally dangerous nature of the mentally ill, but not hesitant to advocate harsh measures should the offending patients merit it.
The film exposes inhumane procedures to curtail the repetition of serious offences such as electric shock treatment and lobotomy, or a surgery performed on the brain to render a person passive and useless, like a human vegetable. The orderlies are sanctioned to ruthlessly deal with misbehavior such as poking patients with a stick, inflicting bodily harm and unnecessarily manhandling them. Such abusive acts are likely to push the patients further into the abyss of mental illness rather than enlighten them on the inappropriateness of their actions.
Outwardly, Nurse Ratched projects an image of highly professional nurse, with perfect manners and in full control of whatever situation she is thrown into. At one point, she even gives off the impression that she is democratic by allowing the patients to vote on a decision as to whether to stick to the routine or deviate from it to watch the World series game. It is obvious that she dominates the control in the ward because all the men bow to her system of routine, as she expects them to….except for one newcomer, in the person of Randle McMurphy whom she engages in a battle of wills.
The patients warmed up to McMurphy’s character, realizing that they were being manipulated by Nurse Ratched into “behaving” as normal, manageable patients. In McMurphy, they found hope that they are capable of doing things on their own without the systematic guidance of Nurse Ratched. This caused the mounting of tension in the ward between the patients and the hospital staff and administration.
When both Nurse Ratched and McMurphy eventually fight it out, driving McMurphy to totally lose his temper and act on his repressed urge to kill her for her cruelty masked with coolness, Nurse Ratched’s power manifests itself as McMurphy is sent for a lobotomy.
Unknown to Nurse Ratched, who thinks she has reclaimed her rightful throne, after giving Mc Murphy what is due him (lobotomy), McMurphy is given the “dignity of death” by one of his close, and the only perfectly sane friend, Chief Bromden. He vindicates McMurphy of the shame of being defeated by Nurse Ratched by setting his spirit free from his vegetable-state body prison. Soon after, he himself breaks open the barred windows with the marble water fountain symbolic of McMurphy’s attempt to try his best despite obvious hindrances and escapes the hell hole he has endured for the past ten years.
The film mirrors the harsh realities permeating into the mental healthcare system. Practitioners may take for granted their mentally-ill patients, especially those who seem to have no hope of being healed and the underprivileged, charity cases. Although the merciless practices exposed in the film, electric shock treatments and lobotomy, have long been banned as a medical procedure, much of the inhumane, psychological warfare remain in most mental institutions. It is easy to fall into the trap of losing one’s patience with the mentally ill, much more if they pose as a burden to the staff because even their own family members have given up on them. The high level of stress working with these patients can easily be diffused by making a mockery of them and feeling that they, being normal people, are so much more superior to their patients. For some hospital staff, work with the mentally-ill gives them a position of power, and enjoy it to the hilt when they exercise this power over the patients.
Family members of the patients usually lose interest in visiting them in the mental institutions because of their waning hope that their loved ones will ever be the same again. Add to that the shame attached to being related to a mentally ill person is palpably emphasized by society.
Government funding does not prioritize mental healthcare as much as physical healthcare, as mental disabilities are not as observable as physical illness, hence, much more easier to neglect.
As in everything else, there is hope. Griping about the harsh realities being faced by mental patients will not do them any good. Instead, working for their cause in “rocking the boat” and shaking the truth into the mental healthcare practitioners concerned that there are better alternative methods of therapy, and showing them that being more caring and compassionate to the patients (as it is what they pledged on with their Hippocratic oath) will indeed bring more healing than destruction to the already broken souls.
Forman, M. (1975) “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, Fantasy Films