Jun. 9, 2010 -- Don't blame it on the Dark Side. Anakin Skywalker's epic transformation into the evil Darth Vader may have been a result of mental illness, according to a group of French psychiatrists and psychologists.
In a paper published in the journal Psychiatry Research, Eric Bui and his colleagues at Toulouse University Hospital have given new meaning to the term "Jedi mind tricks" with their psychoanalysis of why the tragic "Star Wars" hero fell from Jedi grace. Apparently, he had borderline personality disorder.
As he came of age, Skywalker showed problems with impulsivity, violent outburst, illusions of invincibility and crises of identity, all of which are in line with borderline personality disorder diagnosis, the researchers concluded.
The absence of a father and early separation from his mother set the stage for his later developmental issues, the authors noted, and violent, dissociative events, such as when he kills a tribe of Tuskans in blind revenge, precipitated his turn to the Dark Side.
Indeed, Skywalker exhibited six out of nine of the borderline personality disorder criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV), although fitting five is enough for a diagnosis.
What's more, they argued, because adolescents tend to display some traits of borderline personality disorder during their development, Skywalker's erratic behavior and struggles with identity may be behind the wild success of the sci-fi saga.
But some U.S. psychiatrists believe the researchers may have jumped the gun.
"Anakin shows borderline traits, but these do not persist into his adulthood," UCLA child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. H. Eric Bender said.
The borderline personality traits listed in the paper would have to be "enduring and maladaptive patterns" over the lifetime in order to justify a diagnosis, he added.
When Skywalker made the transformation to Darth Vader, the borderline personality traits didn't really come with him. In other words, Bender said, he was firm in his identity as a villain.
Therapy Session at Comic-Con
Although he disagreed with the diagnosis, Bender would be the first to approve of the spirit behind the Darth Vader paper.
While a fellow in child psychiatry at UCLA, Bender joined forces with fellow psychiatrists Dr. Vasilis Pozios of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Dr. Praveen Kambam of Los Angeles to form Broadcast Thought, an advocacy group that seeks to educate the public about mental illness through fictional characters of the comic book or sci-fi variety.
"We are 'fanboys' ourselves," Bender said. "We love comics" and wanted to use the genre "to examine how mental illness is portrayed in media and how it educates the public."
In the past year, the trio has spoken at renowned comic book conventions Comic-Con and WonderCon, where they delivered an analysis -- to sold out crowds, no less -- of which Batman villains actually deserved to be in the fictional psychiatric hospital of the series, Arkham Asylum.
"People really have a hunger to learn more about these characters and it's a great opportunity to educate public on the accuracy of depictions of mental health disorders, and in that way, help reduce mental health stigma," Pozios said.
As for which Batman criminals were actually criminally insane, surprisingly few made the cut.
Maximillian Zeus, who believed himself to be the ancient Greek deity, was deemed mentally ill, considering that delusion. But the Joker, the notorious Mad Hatter of the Batman series, was not.
Although he had an extreme anti-social personality disorder, his highly planned scheming belies a knowledge of right and wrong. Were he in the real world, he would likely be put in the slammer, not in the psych ward, they said.
Broadcast Thought will speak again at this year's Comic-Con in late July, this time about the effect of trauma on the formation of comic book heroes and villains, such as Batman. The group will also continue to conduct research on the audiences to whom it speaks to gauge whether its work is actually changing perceptions of mental illness and reducing stigma.
According to preliminary data from their latest talks, it is.
Through Broadcast Thought, the doctors hope to enact what Bender called a "paradigm shift" in the way the media, be it movies, comics or television, portray mental illness.
"Our hope would be one day that writers and producers and directors say, [when dealing with a character with mental illness], 'What do you mean you didn't consult with psychiatrists'?"
Was It the Force or Just a Tough Childhood?
Still, at issue is whether Darth Vader would have really been better off in a psych ward.
Skywalker portrayed many of the traits of the disorder as a youth, but even in the world of fictional "diagnoses," the French paper may be pushing the limits of diagnosis, psychiatrists say.
"It's important to note that any person, when put in highly stressful situations, may display certain traits, such as impulsivity, which are associated with borderline personality disorder," UCLA's Bender said.
But one time period in a person's life is not enough to justify a diagnosis, especially if that is a highly stressful period early on in life.
"Teenagers are impulsive and can practice risky behavior," said Dr. Sue Varma, assistant professor of psychiatry at the N.Y.U. Langone School of Medicine.
"They are trying to find out who they are and in playing around with identities, they show characteristics similar to borderline," she said. "But this is not enough for a diagnosis. Most teens come out the other side by their 20s."
That Skywalker came out the other side a villain didn't mean he was still grappling with the identity crises of his early Jedi years, Bender noted.
Bender believes that narcissistic personality disorder might be a better diagnosis because of some of the traits, such as delusions of grandeur and an obsession with power, seen in the later three films, as well as the first three.
Although made with good intentions, the comic comparisons may have an unfortunate flip side, however.
While explaining the disorders of fictional villains may help educate the public, comparisons to loathed characters also run the risk of increasing the stigma.
"Being likened to Darth Vader can be pretty stigmatizing as well," psychiatrist Pozios said. "You have to be careful [and] responsible with how you present these comparisons. You don't want people with borderline personality disorder to be labeled 'Darth Vaders.'"