Created By: SharleeD on March 19, 2014 Last Edited By: Sharlee on June 5, 2017
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Dr. Psych Patient

A psychiatric patient poses as a doctor or other professional.

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Any time a character in a comedy visits a mental institution or hospital psych ward, odds are good that they'll speak with the first professional-looking person in a lab coat they come upon. And nearly as good that, having spoken to that person, they'll be approached by a real doctor, who'll chew out the "professional" for skipping their meds and stealing somebody's white coat. Surprise! The visiting character — and audience — have just been caught off-guard by the Dr. Psych Patient trope.

Similar confusion can arise with mental patients who pose as nurses, security guards, teachers, police, clergy, or other figures of authority and/or respect. Usually a result of I Just Want to Be You, in that the patient wants to emulate the authority-figure's status so much that they adopt that role, suppressing their own identity.

Darker examples, in which a patient killed the doctor to assume his or her identity, appear in thrillers and horror stories. Such cases often start out as a straight-up deception, but may overlap with Becoming the Mask.

Compare Napoleon Delusion, in which the patient is convinced they're someone else, but the fact that they're deluded isn't initially hidden from other characters or the audience. Contrast Lost in Character, in which an otherwise-sane actor becomes caught up in living their assumed role.

This trope is sometimes played for suspense rather than laughs, so possible spoilers below:


Examples:

Anime
  • Dr. Hotti from Ace Attorney is the self-proclaimed director of the Hotti clinic who is revealed to be an unnamed patient with a stolen lab coat and a stethoscope. He even manages to fool Edgeworth at one point. The main reason for faking his status is because... he's a Dirty Old Man.

Film
  • In Teachers, a delusional patient wanders into the school and is mistaken for the new American history instructor. He embraces the role and winds up teaching for most of the year, winning students' approval with his over-the-top costumed portrayals of historical figures.
  • A similar example involving a psychiatric patient that thinks he is a lawyer, talking to his family in pretty good legalese until he's subdued, appears on the second Airplane! movie.
  • In The Couch Trip, Dan Aykroyd plays a mental patient who escapes & impersonates his psychiatrist at a conference while the psychiatrist is out of the country.
  • In The A-Team, the Establishing Character Moment of Captain "Howling Mad" Murdoch has Baracus and Face mistake him for a doctor. He's already sown a wound on Baracus' arm in the shape of a lightning bolt by the time the real doctor (and Hannibal) comes along.
  • In National Lampoon's Class Reunion, serial killer Walter Baylor assumes the identity of a psychiatrist to infiltrate the reunion party and "warn" its attendees about the murderer on the loose. It's unclear if he's mimicking a specific doctor or not.
  • In I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK, the heroine wakes up in an hospital bed after a Bungled Suicide. An elderly women welcomes her and wheels her around the asylum for a while. Then a doctor comes along and berates the woman who turns out be be just another patient.
  • The Richard Pryor film Critical Condition plays with this: Pryor's character is a hustler that successfully pulled off the Insanity Defense and thus is admitted in the psychiatric wing of a hospital, from which he later manages to escape by pretending to be a doctor... and the plot forces him to keep up the charade when the area that the hospital is in becomes ground zero for the landfall of a hurricane, making transportation impossible and putting the patients (some of which became his friends) at risk.

Literature
  • In Edgar Allan Poe's "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" the narrator discovers that the mental ward staff he's been talking to are actually the mental patients who have taken over the asylum.

Live-Action Television
  • Ralph "the Birdman" on St. Elsewhere once spent an episode claiming to be "Dr. Bullfinch" and making rounds in the hospital.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus: Hamlet visits a psychiatrist, who turns out to be a fake pretending to be a psychiatrist. The fake is chased out by another psychiatrist, who it turns out is also a fake chased out by the "real" psychiatrist, etc. At one point one of the fakes claims it's a psychological test they're running on Hamlet.
  • In NewsRadio, when Bill (Phil Hartman's character) gets institutionalised, one of his fellow inmates greets him, pretending to be a psychiatrist.
  • Jonathan Creek "The Scented Room": Maddy is talking to a psychiatrist when a police officer bursts in saying that her psychiatrist is actually a mental patient with an obsession with listening to people's intimate sexual neuroses. But another psychiatrist comes in and tells her that the man is her patient and actually works for the North Thames Gas Board.
    First Psychiatrist: Unsettling when that happens, isn't it? Now, you were talking about some general sense of confusion in your personal life.
  • Played for drama in Iron Fist, when Danny Rand is forcibly admitted to a psych ward, the "doctor" who greets him when he awakes tries to persuade him to kill himself because "it's the only way to escape". When this fails, he attacks Rand himself only to be dragged away by orderlies.

Theater
  • In Accidental Death of an Anarchist, the Maniac is being interrogated by Inspector Bertozzo in the police station. After he escapes from Bertozzo, he starts pretending to be the judge who is coming to investigate the death of the anarchist. Everyone believes this.
  • In Anyone Can Whistle, J. Bowden Hapgood successfully convinces the whole town that he's a doctor at the local mental institution known as the Cookie Jar. His true identity as one of its patients is only revealed to Fay in the second act.

Video Games
  • In Shadowrun Returns, the Ripper turns out to be a Deadly Doctor who was actually a patient of said (legitimate) doctor who killed him and took his identity.
  • In Psychonauts, Crispin (who actually impersonates an orderly, but otherwise counts) is actually a patient who managed to drive his orderly, Fred, into a breakdown and take over the asylum.
  • In the bonus-game prequel to Mystery Case Files's Key to Ravenhearst, Benedict is admitted to the asylum by a "security guard" whose strange behavior suggests this trope is in play. It's confirmed when, after meeting an equally-unconvincing "doctor" in the lobby, he finds the actual asylum staff Bound and Gagged and suspended from the ceiling upstairs.

Western Animation
  • In Rocko's Modern Life, Rocko goes to the hospital and the first doctor he sees treats him rather roughly during his physical. After he leaves, a nurse goes in, sees the "doctor" and exclaims "Hey! I thought I strapped you to the bed!"
  • In the Looney Tunes short "Patient Porky", Porky Pig goes into a hospital for eating too much cake. A mental patient there pretends to be a doctor and puts him on the X-ray machine, showing a whole birthday cake (complete with candles) inside Porky's stomach. He then sends him to the OR to "operate" and get the cake out.
  • In the I Am Weasel episode "He Said, He Said", the Red Guy plays a psychiatrist to Weasel and baboon. A look at his licence reveals that he crossed out "OTIC" in "PSYCHOTIC" and write in "IATRIST".

Real Life
  • Dr. W.C. Minor was an accidental example. He was a frequent contributor to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary ... and also happened to be an inmate at Broadmoor Hospital (having shot a man in a paranoid fit; his victim's widow apparently brought him books to aid his research). Because he was a former army surgeon (and therefore a doctor), Sir James Murray assumed that he was a doctor who worked at the asylum and didn't learn otherwise until he visited him (after several years).
  • Real Life inversion: A perfectly-sane doctor posed as a mental patient and made up symptoms to test whether his fellow mental health professionals were in fact full of hot air. He was promptly diagnosed with a mental illness and admitted. Unfortunately, they refused to allow him to leave, and help him captive for a long time even though there was nothing wrong with him.
Community Feedback Replies: 31
  • March 19, 2014
    Chabal2
    Apparently the character of Hannibal Lecter was inspired by such a patient, who acted like a psychiatrist to the man interviewing him.

    A common gag in this situation is for the visitor, once the patient is taken away, to ask what the real professional looks like, only to be told "easy, he's the only guy who looks crazy".
  • March 19, 2014
    ohnoesazombie
    I could be mistaken, but didn't they do this exact gag to introduce Murdock in the 2010 remake of The A Team?
  • March 19, 2014
    Bisected8
    • In Shadowrun Returns, the Ripper turns out to be a Deadly Doctor who was actually a patient of said (legitimate) doctor who killed him and took his identity.
    • In Psychonauts, Crispin (who actually impersonates an orderly, but otherwise counts) is actually a patient who managed to drive his orderly, Fred, into a breakdown and take over the asylum.
  • March 19, 2014
    foxley
    • In Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, the Maniac is being interrogated by Inspector Bertozzo in the police station. After he escapes from Bertozzo, he starts pretending to be the judge who is coming to investigate the death of the anarchist. Everyone believes this.
  • March 19, 2014
    Bisected8
    Real Life;

    • Dr. W.C. Minor was an accidental example. He was a frequent contributor to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary...and also happened to be an inmate at Broadmoor Hospital (having shot a man in a paranoid fit; his victim's widow apparently brought him books to aid his research). Because he was a former army surgeon (and therefore a doctor), Sir James Murray assumed that he was a doctor who worked at the asylum and didn't learn otherwise until he visited him (after several years).
  • March 19, 2014
    DAN004
  • March 19, 2014
    SharleeD
    I looked pretty hard, but if we already have it, post the existing title and I'll discard this one.
  • March 19, 2014
    Lakija
    This happened in another instance in Real Life. A doctor posed as a mental patient as an experiment. he was perfectly healthy, and made up symptoms to test whether or not mental professionals were in fact full of hot air. He was, in fact, diagnosed with I think Bipolar and something else, and they admitted him. Unfortunately, they refused to allow him to leave, and help him captive for a long time even though there was nothing wrong with him. Which begged the question: how many other patients in the same institution were perfectly healthy and became mentally unstable due to misdiagnosis and malpractice?

    Here's another story from the NY Times you might like to read.
  • March 19, 2014
    Lakija
    Why not just Undercover Patient?
  • March 19, 2014
    randomsurfer
    • Monty Pythons Flying Circus: Hamlet visits a psychiatrist, who turns out to be a fake pretending to be a psychiatrist. The fake is chased out by the real psychiatrist, who it turns out is also a fake chased out by the "real" psyciatrist, etc. At one point one of the fakes claims it's a psycological test they're running on Hamlet.
    • In the film The Couch Trip Dan Ayckroyd [sp] plays a mental patient who escapes & impersonates his psychiatrist at a conference while the psychiatrist is out of the country.
    • In Edgar Allan Poe's "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" the narrator discovers that the mental ward staff he's been talking to are actually the mental patients who have taken over the asylum.
  • March 19, 2014
    marcoasalazarm
    A similar example (involving a psychiatric patient that thinks is a lawyer, talking to his family in pretty good legalese until he's subdued) appears on the second Airplane movie.

    Also it is the start of the Establishing Character Moment of Captain "Howling Mad" Murdoch in the The A Team movie (Baracus and Face mistake him for a doctor, and he has already sown a wound on Baracus' arm in the shape of a lightning bolt by the time the real doctor (and Hannibal) comes along).
  • March 20, 2014
    Hero_Gal_2347
    Would the inmates in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest identifying themselves as doctors while on an outing qualify?
  • March 20, 2014
    SharleeD
    ^^^^^ A sane doctor being institutionalized because they were pretending to be crazy would be an inversion, not a straight example.

    ^ Probably not, if the audience is already aware of their status as patients.
  • March 20, 2014
    Dolski
    In NewsRadio, when Bill (Phil Hartman's character) gets institutionalised, one of his fellow inmates greets him, pretending to be a psychiatrist.
  • March 23, 2014
    Synchronicity
    • Dr. Hotti from Ace Attorney is the self-proclaimed director of the Hotti clinic. He's actually an unnamed patient who steals a lab coat and a stethoscope and talks to visitors. He actually manages to fool even Edgeworth at one point.
  • May 9, 2014
    jormis29
    • Jonathan Creek "The Scented Room": Maddy is talking to a psychiatrist when a police officer bursts in saying that her psychiatrist is actually a mental patient with an obsession with listening to people's intimate sexual neuroses. But another psychiatrist comes in and tells her that the man is her patient and actually works for the North Thames Gas Board.
      First Psychiatrist: Unsettling when that happens, isn't it? Now, you were talking about some general sense of confusion in your personal life.

  • May 9, 2014
    TonyG
    Western Animation
    • In Rockos Modern Life, Rocko goes to the hospital and the first doctor he sees treats him rather roughly during his physical. After he leaves, a nurse goes in, sees the "doctor" and exclaims "Hey! I thought I strapped you to the bed!"
    • In one Looney Tunes short, Porky Pig goes into a hospical for eating too much cake. A mental patient there pretends to be a doctor and puts him on the X-ray machine, showing a whole birthday cake (complete with candles) inside Porky's stomach. He then sends him to the OR to "operate" and get the cake out.
  • April 23, 2017
    eroock
    Film:
    • In Im A Cyborg But Thats Ok, the heroine wakes up in an hospital bed after a Bungled Suicide. An elderly women welcomes her and wheels her around the asylum for a while. Then a doctor comes along and berates the woman who turns out be be just another patient.
  • March 16, 2016
    BrokenEye
    Does it still count if the patient actually was a licensed psychiatrist before having to be institutionalized?

    Come to think of it, why isn't former psychiatrists who have gone insane a trope? There are at least five of them in Batman alone. Or maybe that is a trope. I don't know.
  • March 16, 2016
    marcoasalazarm
    The Richard Pryor film Critical Condition plays with this Trope: Pryor's character is a hustler that successfully pulled off the Insanity Defense and thus is admitted in the psychiatric wing of a hospital, from which he later manages to escape by pretending to be a doctor... and the plot forces him to keep up the charade when the area that the hospital is in becomes ground zero for the landfall of a hurricane, making transportation impossible and putting the patients (some of which became his friends) at risk.
  • March 16, 2016
    marcoasalazarm
    Doble post. Sorry.
  • March 16, 2016
    DAN004
  • March 30, 2016
    Petricareless
    In Ace Attorney , Director Hotti/ Hickfield is revealed to actually be a patient from his interactions with the nurses at the clinic he supposedly works at. He's faking his status as clinic director mainly because... he's a Dirty Old Man .
  • March 30, 2016
    marcoasalazarm
    ^ Most of the examples of Psycho Psychologist are like Lecter before (or after) he got tossed in prison: they are evil men that happen to be psychologists. This is a trope about madmen (evil and not) that impersonate doctors. Like Impersonating An Officer is for cops.
  • March 30, 2016
    DAN004
    ^ Call this Impersonating A Psychiatrist then.
  • April 1, 2016
    marcoasalazarm
    ^You sure that won't violate the No Snow Flakes thing?
  • April 1, 2016
    DAN004
    ^ Snowclones are only bad if clarity is sacrificed in the process. My proposed name doesn't.
  • April 23, 2017
    eroock
    Updated draft with outstanding examples. This looks good to go.
  • April 24, 2017
    BrokenEye
    • Played for drama in Iron Fist, when Danny Rand is forcibly admitted to a psych ward, the "doctor" who greets him when he awakes tries to persuade him to kill himself because "it's the only way to escape". When this fails, he attacks Rand himself only to be dragged away by orderlies.
  • May 5, 2017
    Prfnoff
    • In Anyone Can Whistle, J. Bowden Hapgood successfully convinces the whole town that he's a doctor at the local mental institution known as the Cookie Jar. His true identity as one of its patients is only revealed to Fay in the second act.
  • May 6, 2017
    Kartoonkid95
    • In the I Am Weasel episode "He Said, He Said", the Red Guy plays a psychiatrist to Weasel and baboon. A look at his licence reveals that he crossed out "OTIC" in "PSYCHOTIC" and write in "IATRIST".
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