Darth Vader needs therapy, psychiatrists say

Sith Lord: Meant to bring harmony to the galaxy, he never found inner peace. © Lucas Film

Does Darth Vader have borderline personality disorder? An academic paper by psychiatric researchers argues that he shows clear symptoms. And that we could all learn a lot by studying them.

He is one of cinema’s most iconic villains.

A masked bully who wields the Force to intimidate and overcome his rivals, Darth Vader is the face of evil in the Star Wars saga.

As a young Jedi called Anakin Skywalker, he is presented as a gifted but troubled youth who gives in far too easily to his negative emotions.

But, perhaps, his story is better understood through the lens of modern psychiatry.

According to researchers, Anakin, later Lord Vader, displays many of the traits commonly associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD).

In a serious academic paper, Eric Bui and his team write: “The character fulfilled six of the nine borderline personality disorder (BPD) criteria. He presented impulsivity and difficulty controlling his anger and alternated between idealisation and devaluation.”

BPD is a mental health condition characterised by emotional instability, regular delusions, and extremely intense relationships with other people.

As well as betraying the entire Jedi order in order to quell a bad dream about his wife, he murders fellow generals and cannot understand why – after chopping off his son, Luke Skywalker’s hand – he doesn’t want to join him in ruling the galaxy.

Experts say that using the modern language of mental health helps us to understand fictional characters.

The most memorable stories and myths serve the dual purpose of entertaining us and also teaching us about ourselves.

According to the authors of several other psychology papers, by applying labels like BPD to Darth Vader, or ADHD to Jar Jar Binks, it becomes easier for students of psychiatry to understand complex mental health conditions.

Instead of looking inwards, young psychologists can see examples in well-known characters.

Darth Vader is not alone in needing help for his mental health. Elsa (from the Disney film Frozen) is another who could be suffering from BPD. She struggles to stay on top of the emotional outbursts that negatively affect those around her.

Though still poorly understood, BPD is thought to affect around 2% of the population. While it is true that the symptoms echo those of a moody teenager – which explains Anakin’s popularity – they are much more serious in adults.

So, does Darth Vader have borderline personality disorder?

Jedi disorder

Yes, obviously. The signs are all there. He cannot cope with abandonment; he is prone to outbursts. When he thinks about losing his wife Padme, he murders much of the Jedi order. By understanding his behaviour through the lens of modern psychology, we can frame the entire story of Star Wars as something we can all learn from, not just a caricature of good versus evil.

No, he’s a fictional character. He exists to entertain, to make us think, to move the story along. As a caricature of evil, Darth Vader is bound to display some of the more extreme traits known to the human mind, but that does not mean he has a real condition. In fact, it is stigmatising to compare an intergalactic, super villain to the sufferers of a fairly common mental health condition.

You Decide

  1. Think of your favourite movie. Do you think that any of the characters should seek help for their mental health?
  2. Do you think that it is helpful to diagnose fictional characters with real-life mental health conditions?

Activities

  1. On a single sheet of paper, write about a time that your own thoughts or behaviours frightened you. Write about what you did to make yourself feel better. Don’t show what you wrote to anyone. Keep it for the next time you are feeling down or angry.
  2. In groups, write a two-page script for a scene in a play in which Darth Vader visits his therapist.

Some People Say...

“Named must your fear be, before banish it you can.”

Jedi Master Yoda

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Anakin Skywalker meets the criteria for borderline personality disorder. This may partly explain the commercial success of these movies among adolescents, who often display similar traits. The finding might also be useful in educating the general public and medical students about the symptoms of BPD.
What do we not know?
We do not know whether the character of Darth Vader was ever written with a particular mental health condition in mind. We cannot be sure whether using fictional characters to explain such conditions is helpful for raising awareness, or whether it simply caricatures the experiences of real-life sufferers.

Word Watch

The Force
In the Star Wars universe, it is an energy that flows through all living things and allows the Jedi, their enemies, and the Sith to read minds, move objects from afar, and see into the future.
Psychiatry
The medical application of psychology devoted to the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of mental disorders
Borderline personality disorder
A disease of mood and how a person interacts with others. It is the most commonly recognised personality disorder.
Idealisation and devaluation
Two extremes of how people relate to others. Idealisation consists of always looking up to someone and seeing them as perfect; devaluation is the opposite.
Quell
To put an end to (a rebellion or other disorder), typically by the use of force.
ADHD
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a mental health condition that can cause above-normal levels of energetic and impulsive behaviours.
Padme
Padme Amidala is the Queen of Naboo in the Star Wars universe. She marries Anakin in secret and gives birth to their two children, Luke and Leia.
Caricature
Like a cartoon, exaggerated and over-simplified.
Stigmatising
Disapproving of, or discriminating against, a person based on perceivable characteristics. It’s the opposite of respecting and recognising someone or something, especially when it comes to mental health conditions.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.