How “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” Handles Mental Health

Photo: Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for Where'd You Go, Bernadette.
Throughout the new movie Where’d You Go, Bernadette, various characters speculate about what’s going on with Bernadette’s mental health. There's a long list of armchair diagnoses: depression, postpartum depression, mania, bipolar disorder, agoraphobia, addiction, anxiety, social anxiety, suicidal ideation, paranoia, and “grandiosity.”
The problem? None of these characters are mental health professionals who have actually taken the time to diagnose Bernadette (played by Cate Blanchett). Instead, they're Bernadette's workaholic husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and other moms at her daughter Bee's (Emma Nelson) school. One — Dr. Kurtz, played by Judy Greer — is a psychiatrist. But she hasn’t actually had a session with Bernadette. Instead, Elgin and his assistant (who is also the mom of one of Bee's classmates) Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao) tell Dr. Kurtz about Bernadette and convince her to help them stage an intervention. During the intervention, the three of them attempt to convince Bernadette to voluntarily begin inpatient treatment at a mental health facility, and threaten to forcibly commit her if she won't. Instead, Bernadette escapes through a bathroom window and temporarily disappears.
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Although neither the movie directed by Richard Linklater nor the novel by Maria Semple give Bernadette a diagnosis, both give hints about her mental health. Throughout the movie, Bernadette mentions having anxiety, insomnia, and panic attacks, and in the book, she also describes past suicidal ideation. In both the book and the movie, we learn she has a prescription for Xanax (used to treat anxiety and panic disorders), and in the movie, we see other unidentified pills. The book gets more specific: along with Xanax, Bernadette has prescriptions for Klonopin (used to treat anxiety and panic disorders), Ambien and Halcion (both used to treat insomnia), and trazodone (used to treat depression).
Throughout the course of both the book and the movie, we learn that Bernadette experienced a lot of trauma in a short period of time — the dramatic end of her architecture career, four miscarriages, and her daughter's birth and early years (Bee was born with a serious heart condition and poor chances for survival). It's clear that Bernadette is struggling.
In a 2013 interview with Psychology Today, author Maria Semple said the novel was partially inspired by her own experiences with depression. “I was writing about the depression I found myself in at the time,” she said. “On the one hand, that made it easy, because I could draw from powerful emotions. On the other hand, I was attacked by doubt on almost an hourly basis: I'm loving this, but why would anyone else care about a whining, snobby woman who moved from L.A. to Seattle and hates the people?”
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In interviews promoting the movie, Cate Blanchett has said that Bernadette is dealing with postpartum depression, failure, and grief. In an interview with Prevention, Cate Blanchett described Bernadette as “dealing with failure. Massive failure. And also I think postpartum depression. She went through a series of miscarriages, which is never really talked about, and then she thought her daughter, her beloved daughter, was going to die."
Although she never sees a psychiatrist, when Bernadette finds a creative outlet again — designing a new Antarctic research station — her mental health begins to improve. While a creative outlet as a cure for mental illness might sound trite, studies have shown that art therapy can be effective in helping patients cope with trauma, stress, and burnout. “Creativity thwarted is probably the most toxic thing in the world. You know, the artist thwarted is lethal,” director Richard Linklater explained in an interview with NPR. Or as a fellow architect tells Bernadette in the movie, "People like you must create. If you don't create, you will become a menace to society."
But while Bernadette’s architecture career may be an outlet for all her energy, she, like all of us, could probably benefit from therapy, too.
If you or someone you know is struggling, please contact Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566. All calls will be answered in confidence.
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