The misrepresentation of coma in films

The unrealistic portrayal of coma in films could be misleading the general public at a time when society has been so bitterly divided by the ethical issues raised by high-profile cases like that of Terri Schiavo. She died last year after her feeding tube was removed, following 15 years living in a persistent vegetative state.

Eelco and Coen Wijdicks at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine analysed the portrayal of coma in thirty popular films, including Kill Bill and Regarding Henry. In all the films bar one, coma patients were seen to remain well-groomed with a normal, muscular tanned appearance. In 18 of the films, the coma patient awoke, usually in a sudden fashion and without any noticeable cognitive deficits.

The authors said that not showing the muscle atrophy, bed sores, incontinence and feeding tubes associated with coma “may be a conscious decision to maximise entertainment but is a disservice to the viewer”.

“To imply full physical and cognitive recovery after prolonged coma is gratuitous”, they added.

Indeed, a survey of 72 lay viewers who were shown 22 scenes taken from the analysed films revealed more than a third would use the fictional scenes to inform decisions that could potentially face them in real life.

“We are concerned that the comatose states depicted in these movies often can be misinterpreted as realistic representations” the authors concluded. However, they pointed to one film ‘Dream Life of Angels’ “…that was truly able to convey the complexities of care surrounding a loved one in a coma”.

Wijdicks, E.F.M. & Wijdicks, C.A. (2006). The portrayal of coma in contemporary motion pictures. Neurology, 66, 1300-1303.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to Hollywood coverage of mental disorders, from The Psychologist magazine.