Orange is the New Black: The Mentally Ill

Lori Petty in Orange is the New Black

For the first 3 seasons of Orange is the New Black, two of our favorite characters are obviously mentally ill. At the end of season 3, two more mentally ill inmates join the cast. None of these women belong in a prison. The alternative provided, called simply Psych on OITNB, is apparently worse than the prison. Spoilers ahead, beware.

Our long-time mentally ill friends Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) and Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba) are understood by the other women. They are cared for by the other women.

In season 4, we see Morello return to her obsessive disorder when she marries Vinnie (John Magaro) and immediately thinks he is cheating on her. She sees herself doing it and fights it as best she can. She’s self aware about her disorder.

Flashbacks into Suzanne’s past show us what landed her in prison. A child of about 10 that she knew from her job went home with her from the park one day. They played video games. When he wanted to call his dad and go home, Suzanne freaked out. It scared him. He crawled onto the fire escape and fell to his death.

Things upset Suzanne in season 4. She goes through a strange experience with her mentally unbalanced “girlfriend” of sorts, Maureen Kukudio (Emily Althaus). Later Correctional Officers egg her on into a fight with Maureen and she snaps. She beats Maureen until her face looks like a pound of raw hamburger. Before she even processes that, Poussey (Samira Wiley) dies.

Suzanne’s role in Poussey’s death really derails Suzanne. She tries to understand what being crushed feels like by pulling a shelf of library books onto herself.

These cases of mental illness will be dealt with as they have in the past – by the other women. There will be no help from the institution.

Variety ran a great interview with Uzo Aduba about Suzanne’s backstory and Poussey’s death. One quote from Uzo:

I was really happy and grateful that Nick Jones, who wrote that episode, didn’t pass judgment on her or stigmatize her in a way that felt obtuse or careless. He laid out the facts of the matter. Suzanne’s intentions are always good. Her heart is always in the right place. Her intention was not for that to happen to Dylan, but unfortunately that was the result. You saw her try to course correct the best way she knew how, try to reprimand a child the best way she knew how — it’s like watching little kids try to role play parenting. She needed an adult in that moment to tell her to stop and she didn’t have that.

And the guilt she feels from that and the pain that lives inside of her and her inability to manage her emotions fully — you see the other side of that play out with Maureen. She is not in full possession always of herself. It asks a lot of questions: How is it that someone who isn’t in full possession of herself winds up in this form of rehabilitation? Is it rehabilitating? Is this the form of treatment she should be receiving? From Suzanne to Lolly (Lori Petty) to Healy (Michael J. Harney) — we are being called through watching these characters to answer for ourselves and how we treat people in society.


Laura Prepon and Lori Petty in Orange is the New Black
Did we really do that or was it my voices?

Lolly (Lori Petty) joined the cast in season 3. She’s paranoid. She hears voices. Sometimes she can’t keep what’s real and what’s in her head straight.

Lori Petty did a fantastic job in season 4. Simply fantastic. Her Lolly is smart, articulate, likable. Lori Petty’s portrayal of mental illness seems absolutely genuine and honest.

Lolly and Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) got tangled up in season 3 because Alex was afraid her former drug boss would send someone to kill her. It fed into Lolly’s conspiracy theory madness. In episode one of season 4, Lolly goes looking for Alex to tell her there’s a hole in the fence and everyone is in the lake having fun. She finds her in the greenhouse with a guy on her back strangling her. Alex had good reason to be paranoid!

Lolly rushes in and kills the guy. (At least they both think he’s dead. Alex has to finish him off later.) They put him under a tarp. When they come back to bury him, Frieda (Dale Soules) has found him. The three of them cut him in 6 pieces and bury him in the garden.

Here’s a behind the scenes photo from that day’s filming.

Alex works with Lolly as well as she can to convince her not to talk about what happened. Lolly gets the story all tangled up in her mind.

Lori Petty and Michael Harney in Orange is the New Black
Lolly and Healy are best buds now

Lolly tells Healy (Michael Harney). She tells the story so interspersed with a lot of other crazy that he thinks it’s another of her delusions.

Lolly reminds Healy of his mother. They talk a lot. Healy thinks he’s finally helping someone. He feels really good about himself for a while. They share friendly discussions in Lolly’s time machine. Her time machine is a big cardboard box lined with aluminum foil. She wants to go back in time before all this happened.

As part of the construction of a new dorm for the influx of additional prisoners who are on the way, they dig up the garden and find the body parts. Healy realizes he was totally wrong about Lolly. He goes through his own near-suicidal crisis about this. Eventually goes back to the prison and tells them about Lolly.

She’s hauled away to Psych.


Based on Suzanne’s remarks about Psych in an earlier season, and the few seconds of Psych we saw when Healy delivered Lolly there, it’s a horrible place.

Maybe Lolly will come out of Psych in better shape than she went in. But I doubt it. Nothing about the way people are cared for within the prison system makes me think that anything good happens there – even in places meant to help the mentally ill.

Women Helping Women

The only care that happens in Orange is the New Black is incarcerated women helping incarcerated women.

They are mothers, sisters, lovers, confessors, counselors, protectors, and supporters for each other. They have to be. There is no one else. Counseling is a joke. Psych is a nightmare.

I know we live in a punitive society and prisons are build for punishment. They aren’t meant to be fun. Yet we warehouse whole races and generations in our prisons. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

We can do better.

Uzo said it: “. . . we are being called through watching these characters to answer for ourselves and how we treat people in society.”

5 thoughts on “Orange is the New Black: The Mentally Ill”

  1. The stories of the mentally ill inmates on the show resonate with me in particular. While I have no direct experience with the penal mental health system, I do have considerable experience with the civilian system. It is nearly as broken as the DOC version. There’s problems of chronic understaffing, little in the way of background checks for employees, overmedicating, and tragically little one on one care. My time being institutionalized did little to help me recover. At best it taught me how to better hide my symptoms to avoid returning. In the end, like the women on the show, it was a fellow patient who ended up doing more to get me through it than anyone on staff. There is a lot wrong with the way our country handles mental health issues, both institutionally and culturally. The problems are systemic and will require a complete cultural shift to correct.

      1. I am in a relatively fortunate position now in that I am financially secure so I can afford treatment that a lot of people can not. For the economically disadvantaged, it is far worse. Most insurance plans cover little to no psychological care coverage. And that’s for people who have insurance, millions don’t have any coverage at all.

  2. Honestly, the way they handled Lolly was fascinating, but that was the thing that terrified me more than any other part of this show. ALSO, if Maureen is their way of trying to portray someone with Autism, it freaking makes me mad. I’d rather be a Sheldon cooper than a maureen. I think the way they handled Lorna was AMAZING, honestly. I wanna know if either lorna or maureen is bpd. I could definitely see it in lorna but idk with maureen.

    1. It mite make you mad. But I think they did a good job on making her come off autistic — from a 28 year old autistic woman

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