The movie Love & Mercy about Beach Boys musical genius Brian Wilson explores the fragile psychological territory between receiving inspiration and crossing over into mental illness – and the critical choice of a therapist in navigating that landscape.
The film sheds light on Wilson’s groundbreaking harmonies and rhythms that are far more complex than the band’s initial categorization as guys carrying surfboards and making sun-filled “beach music.”
As Wilson’s creative and psychological evolution unfolds, combined with the pressures of fame and drug use, he unfortunately gets connected to one person who nearly destroys him – a bad therapist.
Bad is an understatement.
Rolling Stone points out “…the official trailer for the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy further highlights the alleged manipulation that the Beach Boys singer-songwriter suffered at the hands of psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy…”
The therapist tries to stop Wilson from continuing a mutually respectful and satisfying romantic relationship with the woman who eventually becomes his wife. In one scene, Landy forbids Wilson from eating a sandwich, telling him, "You are not hungry, you think you're hungry!"
Finally, Wilson’s girlfriend confronts the talented musician in his deteriorating mental and physical state and tells him Landy is overmedicating him.
Wilson is afraid to listen to his girlfriend, fearful because the therapist has become his legal guardian.
Concerned about his frightening decline, Wilson’s future-wife begins the process of undoing the legal bond between Wilson and his therapist, which eventually leads to a clean legal break and Wilson’s return to music, marriage and family.
While this may be an unusual case, complicated by fame, therapist Scott D. Miller said in a July 9, 2015 blog titled “Love, Mercy, & Adverse Events in Psychotherapy,” so-called “adverse events” are a hot topic at the moment.
“Wilson’s therapist, psychologist Eugene Landy, chillingly recreated by actor Paul Giamatti, is a prime example of an adverse event,” said Miller. “See the film and you’ll most certainly wonder how the guy kept his license to practice so long.
“And yet, as I also pointed out in my blog last year, there are too few such practitioners to account for the total number of clients who worsen. Consider this unsettling fact: beyond the 10 percent of those who deteriorate in psychotherapy, an additional 30 to 50 percent experience no benefit whatsoever,” said Miller, who is the founder of the International Center for Clinical Excellence.
“That some people deteriorate while in care is not in question,” Miller said. “Research dating back several decades puts the figure at about 10 percent on average. When those being treated are adolescents or children, the rates are twice as high.”
The question is, “What is the cause of some patients worsening while in therapy?”
There are two possible causes to investigate - the method of treatment and the therapist, said Miller.
“No psychotherapy approach tested in a clinical trial has ever been shown to reliably lead to or increase the chances of deterioration – none,” said Miller. “In short, it’s not about the method.”
The key is to track progress from visit to visit, he said.
“Those that are not improving or getting worse can be identified and offered alternatives. It’s that simple,” said Miller.
Two scales provide an evidence-based method for improving the quality and outcome of behavioral health services. Miller works with those scales and has developed the Partners for Change Outcome Management System, or PCOMS, and trains therapists on those methods.
That’s an important step toward making sure that behavioral health clients find the treatment that works best for them.
And it’s one more step toward avoiding the rare, but destructive situations people can slip into when they are vulnerable, as with happened with Brian Wilson.
To see just how little Wilson knew of the exploitation by Landy, there’s a disturbing interview done by Diane Saywer on Prime Time in 1991, before the court forced Landy to sever ties with Wilson.
Sawyer’s video interview is embedded in a June 4, 2015 article in the New York Post, “How One Quack Doctor Almost Ruined Brian Wilson’s Career.”
After Landy was cut off from Wilson, a team of doctors at UCLA diagnosed him with schizoaffective disorder and concluded that Landy’s prescriptions had been damaging to Wilson, according to the New York Post article.
In a 2006 interview with Dr. Gillian Friedman of Ability magazine, Wilson talked about his diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder.
Friedman: “At what point did your schizoaffective disorder start to appear?”
Wilson: “Well, for the past 40 years I’ve had auditory hallucinations in my head, all day every day, and I can’t get them out. Every few minutes the voices say something derogatory to me, which discourages me a little bit, but I have to be strong enough to say to them, “…leave me alone.”
Wilson said that in addition to medication for the disorder, he sees a counselor once a week.
The story of Brian Wilson may be unusual and complex, but it does bring to public attention the importance of making sure that behavioral health clients are matched with treatments that lead to positive results. On that mission, Miller is working with therapists around the world, to “tackle the issue of adverse events in psychotherapy.”
Signs and symptoms of schizoaffective disorder may include, among others:
People with schizoaffective disorder generally respond best to a combination of medications and counseling. Treatment varies depending on the type and severity of symptoms, and whether the disorder is depressive-type or bipolar-type.
In general, doctors prescribe medications to relieve psychotic symptoms, stabilize mood and treat depression. The only medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration specifically for the treatment of schizoaffective disorder is the antipsychotic drug paliperidone, known as Invega.
Grow, Kory, “Brian Wilson Faces Manipulation in New Love & Mercy Trailer,” Rolling Stone, April 14, 2015.
Miller, Scott D., “Love, Mercy, & Adverse Events in Psychotherapy,” scottmiller.com blog, July 9, 2015,
Miller, Scott D., “What is PCOMS?” Partners for Change Outcome Management System
Phull, Hardeep, “How One Quack Doctor Almost Ruined Brian Wilson’s Career,” New York Post, July 4, 2015
Friedman, Gillian, Brian Wilson: A Powerful Interview, Ablity Magazine, 2006