When psychiatry came to the Hundred Acre Wood

Twenty years ago five Canadian specialists in pediatric neurodevelopment explored Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood. They discovered “Seriously Troubled Individuals,” many meeting the criteria for significant mental disorders.

Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, and friends first appeared in stories by A.A. Milne in the late 1920s. In 1961, five years after Milne’s death, Walt Disney Productions purchased the rights to the characters. It released Pooh’s first animated film in 1966. Since then, Disney’s marketed Pooh in hundreds of ways and released short films, feature-length films, and television series and specials.

Pooh’s worldwide popularity was bolstered by animation and marketing. It wasn’t surprising then that “Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood” drew international attention when it appeared in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in mid-December 2000. This was particularly when the authors said psychiatric diagnoses of the characters revealed “a Dark Underside” to the Hundred Acre Wood.

Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, their diagnosis of Pooh was the most extensive. They concluded he has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). His excessive focus on food and repetitive counting suggest he might also have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Moreover, Pooh’s self-description as “a bear of very little brain” indicates borderline intellectual functioning. Their suggestion? “We feel drugs are in order,” they wrote. “We cannot but wonder how much richer Pooh’s life might be were he to have a trial of low-dose stimulant medication.”

As many others might, they found Eeyore suffers from chronic depression. “What a sad life this donkey lives,” they observed. They were unsure whether Eeyore’s condition was inherited or due to some early trauma but felt he “would benefit greatly from an antidepressant, perhaps combined with individual therapy.” Piglet, they said, “clearly” has a generalized anxiety disorder. They believed diagnosis earlier in life may have helped by putting him on an anti-panic medication. Owl, in turn, is “obviously bright, but dyslexic.” Rabbit, meanwhile, has narcissistic personality disorder, due to his “overriding need to organize others, often against their will, into new groupings, with himself always at the top of the reporting structure.”

They were quite concerned about baby Roo because of his single-parent home and his best friend, Tigger. While Kanga had no diagnosed disorder, they described her as possessive and somewhat overprotective. They feared she would end up “struggling to look after several joeys conceived in casual relationships with different fathers, stuck at a dead end with inadequate financial resources.” Tigger, meanwhile, has ADHD, a “recurrent pattern of risk-taking behaviours, and “leads Roo into danger.” As a result, “We predict we will someday see a delinquent, jaded, adolescent Roo hanging out late at night at the top of the forest, the ground littered with broken bottles of extract of malt and the butts of smoked thistles.”

They were also uneasy that leadership in the Hundred Acre Wood fell to young Christopher Robin. While they found no psychiatric conditions, the authors noted that there was “a complete absence of parental supervision, not to mention the fact that this child is spending his time talking to animals.”

The medical journal received a spate of letters and the article garnered headlines worldwide. In April 2001, the journal published a response to the letters. The authors pointed out that the article was a parody with no deeper meaning. They were, they said “attempting to poke fun at ourselves as modern neurodevelopmentalists who are at risk of seeing pathology everywhere and who feel driven to apply our particular vision of the world to everyone, real or fictional, human or animal.” They also apologized “to any fictional single kangaroo mothers who have felt stereotyped.”

When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner

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