Netflix's Nurse Ratched Reopens the Mental Health Conversation

Nicole Akers

Nurse Ratched is given a first name, Mildred, in the modern Netflix tale, but she’s based on the “Big Nurse” character from the famous novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. The surge of activity around the character has a lot of people asking whether she’s a real person. You’ll never hear her real name on any crime beat, but both the book depiction and movie character are based on a real person.

Author Ken Kesey tells Time, Nurse Ratched is based on a woman from a job he held after college. Kesey was no angel himself. He voluntarily agreed to be a subject in government studies involving hallucinogenic drugs and LSD to supplement his income. Later he was arrested for marijuana possession and a subsequent faked suicide, for which he was imprisoned for five months.

Kersey worked on the psychiatry ward of the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital in California, where he came in contact with the head nurse who became the inspiration for the character and how she tended to patients under her care. Critics wanted him to comment on whether he thought “Big Nurse” deserved the depiction but he never did, saying, “that whole thing reached its peak about 15 years ago,” possibly wanting the scenario to remain a thing of the past. When he met the real-life inspiration behind the Ratched character again later in life, he saw her as being “much smaller” in stature than he remembered.

An Angel to Offer Help

The Nurse Ratched character never saw herself as the villain; instead, she was a peaceful means to an end for those in mental anguish. The manifestations of her character proved her to be large in size and manly in attributes. We see a parallel embodiment of the traits we see in The Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter, Psycho’s Norman Bates, Star Wars’ Darth Vader, and The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West. As a female battleaxe, she employed the use of psychotherapy, electric shock, and lobotomy.

An earlier version of the Nurse Ratched character was Louise Fletcher, in the movie with Jack Nicholson. Fletcher won an academy award for her role, and she salutes Nicholson for making being in a mental institution feel real. When asked how she got in touch with her role she suggested:

“She had sacrificed her life for other people. She hasn’t married, hadn’t done this, hadn’t done that, and was self-sufficient on her own leading this life, because she dedicated her life, her earlier life, to other people who needed her,” she told Vanity Fair.

Nurse Ratched highlights the stigmas around mental illness and brings them to life across the movie screen. If you’ve ever done anything where the ends justified the means, you might begin to relate, although hopefully not to the same extreme. The movie pulls back the curtain with the perspective that people with mental illness feel shame for their condition. Her patients saw her as an angel of mercy. They credited her with compassion and offering temporary physical pain to relieve ongoing mental anguish.

Daydreaming, homosexuality, anxiety disorders, and bipolar disorder were treated with a lobotomy. In the updated made for TV series, Nurse Ratched self-administered a lobotomy on a priest who was going to testify against her brother. We can be relieved the use of lobotomy has fallen out of practice as a form of treatment. Her brother killed seven priests, but one victim survived. The nurse-issued treatment prevented the priest from testifying and delayed the execution of her brother. Clearly, the brother had mental health issues, and his execution became a central issue to the Governor’s re-election campaign. Ratched wanted him to die humanely.

At the time the issue was cutting-edge, but it is relevant to our modern lives, as we still feel the stigma today. We’re reminded that mental illness carries with it disgrace and is often seen as a blemish on the person as a whole, for those who have it. We don’t often talk about the physical pain of mental illness, but Healthline says many subjects have a decreased tolerance for pain, and patients commonly complain that everything hurts. Pain is one way the brain communicates and it doesn’t begin to address the emotional pain of mental illness.

Mental Illness is Taboo

The character of Nurse Ratched brings to life a stigma we still see surrounding mental illness. Ratched hoped to help those she served, and if that help came in the form of providing a more humane death, she felt the act to be justifiable. Mental health is part of an ongoing conversation, and 1 in 4 people you’ll meet will wrestle with anxiety, depression, insomnia, or PTSD, according to one study. Young people who seek help for mental health-related issues is on the rise, according to government reports.

There’s Still Work to Do

The modern Netflix Nurse Ratched series highlights that the mental health problem is far from over. We can see physical illness, but mental health goes unobserved by the human eye. Unfortunately, what we cannot see, all too often, we do not understand. When we remove the shame, embarrassment, and guilt of mental illness, we may begin to put the character to rest. Still, until then, the Nurse character continues to manifest in horror, a problem some of us only see in our nightmares. Treating all people with dignity may be our best solution.

Humanity isn’t over-rated. The value of life and human rights don’t have to be forgotten, even when fighting an unforeseen enemy. Even a small deed can go a long way to show compassion to someone who has a mental illness. The smallest measure of kindness can have a positive impact on someone else. Ask what people need and, if nothing else, provide a listening ear to someone with mental illness.

“My mental health does not define me as a human, nor does it define you — it’s simply one part of us, as an ordinary individual.” — Anonymous

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Professional freelance writer | Happy Mom of 2 bringing you amazing tips on parenting, travel, & lifestyle with a touch of humor & sarcasm | Dog Mom | Bestselling author.

Austin, TX

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