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The Labyrinthine Experience of Mental Illness

Nov 25, 2019 | 802 videos
Video by La Distributrice de Films

Jean-François Boisvenue was 6 years old when he first saw a psychiatrist. He had been experiencing insomnia brought on by an extreme fear of darkness. Later, Boisvenue would be diagnosed with nyctophobia—the first of dozens of diagnoses he’d receive in his lifetime.


Boisvenue’s powerful short documentary, Nyctophobia, premiering on The Atlantic today, chronicles his labyrinthine experience of mental illness. What began as childhood fears transmogrified into crippling anxiety in adolescence and psychotic breaks in young adulthood. Although he was administered a cocktail of tranquilizers and antidepressants over the years, Boisvenue’s condition worsened, while his baffled doctors looked on. “I go to the hospital and try to explain my experience,” Boisvenue says in the film, “but no one seems to know or understand this phenomenon.”

After reading and rereading the DSM-5, Boisvenue diagnosed himself with depersonalization-derealization disorder, a rare psychological condition in which the patient experiences disturbing feelings of detachment from his body, thoughts, and identity. Over time, Boisvenue learned how to manage his symptoms and found the inner strength he needed to persevere.


In addition to being a filmmaker, Boisvenue is a set designer for theater and dance performances. He brought this expertise to Nyctophobia. “I decided that I wanted to use visual projections and animations to represent on my body what I was feeling when I was in crisis,” he told me. “I hope that this helps the audience better understand my mental-health disorder.”


Looking back on the years he has spent navigating the health-care system in his native Canada, Boisvenue has learned a thing or two about the way society responds to issues of mental health. “The majority of the people who work in the mental-health-care system are doing a good job, but there are not enough staff and resources,” he said. “I also think that there is not enough prevention. We are managing crises instead of preventing them.” Boisvenue also mentioned that overmedication and difficulty accessing mental-health services are obstacles to getting proper care.


These days, Boisvenue is on a low dose of medication. He hasn’t had a psychotic break in a while. “The symptoms are still there, but they are much less strong, and I know how to deal with them when they take up too much space,” he said. “I have a beautiful artistic career and I try to focus on the bright side of life.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.