Could therapy have saved Anakin from the Dark side? We asked an expert
The Star Wars universe has a lot to learn when it comes to mental health.
The Force is the most fascinating and debated aspect of Star Wars, a mystical presence with a will of its own that grants powers beyond the imagination to those who are sensitive to it.
However, these powers are all also entirely mental and rely heavily on emotions. In The Phantom Menace, Yoda utters those famous words: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” For the Jedi, there’s no complex analysis of emotion or acceptance that fear is natural. Fear is bad. End of story.
If Yoda was right, why didn’t the Jedi focus more on emotional well-being? Instead, emotions like romantic love are forbidden. Jedi are told to trust in the Force, without the resources needed for good mental health. Could therapy have changed the paths of Star Wars characters? Could the biggest shift in the saga — Anakin’s turn to the dark side — be prevented with the help of a professional? For answers, Inverse turned to Brandon Saxton, Ph.D., of the Jedi Counsel podcast, to explain how Star Wars handles mental health.
The Jedi and the Sith, diametrically opposed sects in the use of the Force, have a similar binary view of mental health. The Jedi emphasize trusting in the Force and following your instincts, but have a strict code everyone must follow. The Jedi repress emotions they are told are not allowed, which is not good for emotional and mental health.
“They are pretty rigid,” Saxton says. “There are some really rigid rules around attachment and relationships, and that can be a little bit harmful. Emotions aren’t inherently bad or negative on their own, but they can become unhelpful when they lead us to engage in unhelpful or maladaptive behaviors.”
The Sith, on the other hand, are all very in touch with their emotions. It may seem out of character, but it’s their modus operandi: what do you want, what does your heart desire, and what’s standing in your way. Saxton describes the Sith as the other extreme. Their attitude is, “lean into hate, lean into whatever I want, I’m going to take regardless of the consequences.”
Neither option is great when it comes to mental health, but Saxton points to the little known Gray Jedi as an excellent balance between the two. This is probably the closest Force users get to well-adjusted emotional intelligence, and there’s no better example of a Gray Jedi than Qui-Gon Jinn.
The Jedi were structured through mentor-mentee relationships, but rarely in the master-padawan dynamic do you see mental health advice being given, save one instance. In the Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn reminds his padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi to be present in the moment. This mindfulness advice is legitimately good, not only for Jedi wanting to get back in connection with the Force but also for anyone caught up in their own thoughts.
Qui-Gon Jinn is probably the closest thing to a therapist the Star Wars movies contain. It may be the reason George Lucas killed him off so early: his influence might have prevented Anakin from turning.
“Qui-Gon’s a lot more interactive,” says Saxton. “I think he’s driven by values, personal values, instead of just the Jedi code. If we could have a bit more nuance it could be really helpful, and a bit more nuance in our perspectives about the Force.”
While it’s possible Qui-Gon could have made a difference if he’d survived Episode I, there’s much more to consider when it comes to Anakin’s mental health.
Starting from the very beginning, Anakin had an incredibly traumatic life. Growing up in slavery, in extreme poverty, with a single mother and an unknown father would be traumatic enough, but on top of that, he was ripped from the home he knew for a strict cult-like way of life. In an Instagram Live interview with Inverse, Star Wars novelist Delilah Dawson puts it simply, “There wasn’t a moment in Anakin’s life that wasn’t built on trauma.”
“There wasn’t a moment in Anakin’s life that wasn’t built on trauma.”
But how much of mental health is determined by trauma? Saxton says the answer is a complex one of nature versus nurture, but the main theories are the diathesis-stress model and the biopsychosocial model. Each of these takes every factor of someone’s life into account when assessing their mental health: their genetics, their psychological makeup, and their socio-cultural environment.
When it comes to Anakin, we know a lot more about his nurture than his nature.
“We don't really know about his mom's mental health history,” Saxton says, “Presumably, he was born of the Force. And so I'm sure there is some weird genetic result of that, which is hard to consider.”
We know a lot more about his socio-cultural environment. Anakin was born into poverty and slavery. He was taken from his mother at a young age, saw her die, and witnessed countless more deaths during the Clone Wars. But if none of that happened, would it make a difference?
“You could imagine a situation where Anakin Skywalker was born into a healthier, more stable, more secure environment. Maybe he does end up at a different outcome, but we just don't know because of the unknown mystery part with the genetic piece.”
Saxton previously conducted a psychological profile of Anakin, covering his entire life as Darth Vader, and the resulting diagnosis wasn’t all that surprising: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. One of the symptoms is a grandiose sense of self-importance and devaluing others, which is exhibited in one of Darth Vader’s first on-screen appearances regarding the Death Star.
“He says pretty directly about it.” Saxton says, quoting Vader, “Don't be too proud about this technological terror you constructed, the power to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
Anakin also exhibits many other symptoms, like fantasies of unlimited success and power. He’s lured to the Dark side when Palpatine famously tells him tales of a Sith who defeated death altogether. He displays a sense of entitlement in the iconic “I find your lack of faith disturbing” scene.
So while there’s a possibility Anakin’s actions could be linked to a personality disorder, whether a therapist could actually help him is still up in the air. Saxton thinks it could actually be dangerous for whatever therapist the Jedi hypothetically had on hand.
“The problem sometimes is sort of people who have narcissistic personality disorders, there's not always a high motivation for change,” he says. “Early stages Anakin, there probably would be some motivation, but once he thought that he lost his family, and he's really in full Darth Vader mode, I think your engagement with therapy would be low and in fact, really quite risky for therapists.”
Whether or not Anakin’s fate was inevitable or not is, unfortunately, moot. There’s no going back into the past and coaching him through empathy exercises. However, addressing the traumatic events in his life and the failures of both the Jedi and the Sith can inform our own viewpoints in emotional and mental health. Anakin’s fall wasn’t merely the success of the impulsive Sith, it was also the failure of the disciplined Jedi. Happiness and mental health lie in the balance of the two.