What Game of Thrones Got Wrong About Mental Health

Photo Credit: HBO

Like many viewers, I took this season of Game of Thrones hard. I’ve been a fan since the series began, watching with groups of well-educated peers (including philosophers, art historians, literature professors, and other psychologists) who literally make their living geeking out. I’ve also read all of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, decorated my home with maps of Westeros and the land beyond, used a Brienne of Tarth-like sword to trim backyard shrubbery, and cosplayed as both Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. To say I was personally invested in the series would be an understatement of epic proportions.

            Like any viewer, I watch television series through the lens of my own experiences and worldviews. I’m a licensed psychologist who specializes in assessment and counseling of gifted and twice-exceptional populations. This is a rare area of expertise, and I’ve built my education and professional life around developing it. I’m privileged to own a private practice where I serve these clients from elementary school to adulthood. Of course, whenever I watch TV, I apply psychological principles, theories, and research to what I’m viewing …. often loudly, while throwing objects at the screen, and insisting that characters should zig-zag! I like to believe I shrink and I know things.

            One of the most upsetting and psychologically inaccurate problems with Game of Thrones Season 8 is the portrayal of sudden-onset, severe mental illness in Daenerys Targaryen. We all saw her flip a switch from brave and thoughtful leader, freer of enslaved people, defender of women and children … to Dracarys-assisted genocide. The genocide was then followed by delusions of a megalomaniac nature, alternating with child-like pleas for love/acceptance/collaboration from Jon Snow. Nope. Nope. Nope. This is NOT how mental illness works. Literally, it would have been more logical for the screenwriters to add a storyline about  avowed carnivore Drogon converting to veganism!

            I’ve seen people experience psychosis, and I’ve read many research studies about it. In all of the research studies and individual lives I’ve seen, there are some common threads. What is psychosis? Basically, it’s a state of losing the ability to understand the difference between reality and a delusional belief system (something that feels real to the person, and may make sense to the individual, but it is clearly “off” to observers). It includes some type of hallucinations (seeing, hearing, smelling, or feeling stimuli that are not actually present), like hearing voices, seeing monsters chasing you, or feeling non-present spiders crawling all over your skin. The people I’ve known, as well as those I’ve read about, describe psychosis as utterly terrifying. Those individuals, and also many research studies, note many common threads in psychosis. First, there are warning signs. An individual who is nearing a psychotic episode will begin to act in unusual ways that are noticeable to those who know the person well. The person may show changes in sleep patterns, be increasingly irritable or jumpy, talk at length in way that feels “pressured” like the person can’t stop, express ideas that show a lack of logic, become uninhibited and show unusual public behaviors, take more risks, or “rant” or speak in ways that are disorganized. These behaviors increase in severity and are more noticeable over a substantial period of time. This was not the case for Daenerys, who in the series emerged from a brief period of intense grieving for her lost best friend, translator, and advisor Missandei (following other recent losses of two dragons – Rhaegal and Viserion, and trusted protector and advisor Jorah Mormont), to her remaining advisors doubting her mental health and fitness to complete her career goals. 

            Other potential mental disorders that may have been purported to cause Daenerys’s fiery genocide spree include 1) antisocial personality disorder and 2) post-traumatic stress disorder. Antisocial personality disorder is a long-standing pattern of persistently disregarding the rights of others, harming others, lying, aggressiveness, and lack of remorse. For it to occur, an individual would need to have a serious pattern of such behaviors before the age of 15. This simply isn’t the case in Daenerys’s history. Regarding post-traumatic stress disorder, Ms. Targaryen has certainly experienced trauma after trauma. She was abused in every possible way (verbally, sexually, emotionally, and physically) by her sadistic older brother, sold off as a child bride, raped by her husband Khal Drogo, subjected to many situations in which she feared for her own life and safety … then lost the majority of her support system – Ser Barristan Selmy, Ser Jorah Mormont, Missandei of Naath, Viserion, and Rhaegal – to violent deaths that she directly observed. She  also witnessed and participated in many battles in which troops under her command and innocent civilians were killed. For a person to have diagnosable PTSD, that individual who have had to re-experience traumatic memories, avoided reminders of the traumas, experienced significant changes in mood or thinking, and had major changes in alertness or reactivity.  PTSD is the only mental disorder for which Daenerys could have logically met criteria for. Interestingly, the vast majority of individuals with PTSD are not violent toward others. Instead, their pain is largely internal, and people with PTSD are more likely to harm themselves than to harm others. Additionally, PTSD is not associated in research studies with a “sudden snap” into dragon-mediated mass murder, or any type of mass murder.

            Some characters in Season 8, including Varys and Tyrion, made comments about Targaryens’ propensity toward mental illness. On many occasions, these trusted advisors referenced simply probability and nature engaging in dice-rolling to determine if a Targaryen (in this case Daenerys) would be “mad.” Again, that’s NOT how mental illness works. Biology is not destiny. The diathesis-stress model of mental illness states that many individuals have biological, genetic predispositions toward particular mental health disorders. However, whether or not each individual with a genetic predisposition actually develops the mental health disorder is determined by stressors in the person’s environment. A person may have a combination of risk factors (such as traumas, a lack of environmental resources, or neglect) and/or protective factors (such as social support, education, and resilience) that determine the likelihood of the person “losing” to a predisposition and developing a mental disorder. In Daenerys’s case, many protective factors – including the loyal people and dragons in her social support network, her desire to help others, her quick pace of learning (such as her learning of multiple languages), her determination, her resilience, and her conscious desire to be different from her “mad” ancestors – decreased the likelihood of her developing the mental disorders that had impacted her family members. Again, she would not have simply snapped into psychotic behavior with so many protective factors in her history.

            The Daenerys we all came to know and support, the Myhsa for whom we cheered as she strove to protect the disenfranchised, got a raw deal in Season 8. It’s clear that in their  approximately $90,000,000 budget for the final season of an epic series, HBO skimped on hiring a reputable psychologist who could help them to craft a realistic, respectful portrayal of mental illness in a beloved character. In my mind, I’ve rewritten the final season in many ways, all of which end with Daenerys choosing to love herself, leave the haters behind, and fly back East with Drogon, where she could live the rest of her life as an inspiring, progressive leader of people who appreciate her. A healthy, true-to-herself Daenerys would’ve shown flexibility in adjusting her goals and dreams, then  said “Peace out!” to Westeros and all of its drama. I can picture her majestically riding her dragon off into the sunrise, to be the Queen she was meant to be. Ideally, she would also have the counsel of a good therapist (Is that included in the training of maesters?) to help her integrate past traumas, believe in herself, and enhance her coping skills.

            If millions of petitioning fans get their wish and HBO does a remake of Game of Thrones Season 8, I’d be happy to show up, in full Westeros-themed cosplay, to serve as a consultant.

            On the topic of dream consulting jobs, I’d also love to serve as a psychology consultant for Young Sheldon. I have strong opinions about that sitcom’s portrayal of gifted students and Sheldon’s challenges with anxiety, social relationships, and school. Check back here soon for my take on Young Sheldon and how I’d work with him as a client!