Barbie has an anxiety disorder

And it’s a great time to be a therapist


The Barbie movie is generating a lot of feelings, ranging from praise to vitriol. However one feels about the movie, let’s all pause and reflect for a moment on the fact that the number-one grossing film of 2023 is about our childhood doll trying to treat her anxiety disorder.

Dr. Eva Ritvo, psychiatrist, Florida Eva Ritvo

Dr. Eva Ritvo

“Life imitates art more than art imitates life.” So said Oscar Wilde in 1889.

When my adult daughter, a childhood Barbie enthusiast, asked me to see the film, we put on pink and went. Twice. Little did I know that it would stir up so many thoughts and feelings. The one I want to share is how blessed I feel at this moment in time to be a mental health care provider! No longer is mental health something to be whispered about at the water cooler; instead, even Barbie is suffering. And with all the controversy in the press about the movie, no one seems at all surprised by this storyline.

I was raised by two child psychiatrists and have been practicing as an adult psychiatrist since 1991. The start of the pandemic was the most difficult time of my career, as almost every patient was struggling simultaneously, as was I. Three long years later, we are gradually emerging from our shared trauma. How ironic, now with the opportunity to go back to work, I have elected to maintain the majority of my practice online from home. It seems that most patients and providers prefer this mode of treatment, with a full 90 percent of practitioners saying they are using a hybrid model.

As mental health professionals, we know that anywhere from 3% to 49% of those experiencing trauma will develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and we have been trained to treat them.

But what happens when an entire global population is exposed simultaneously to trauma? Historians and social scientists refer to such events by many different names, such as: Singularity, Black Swan Event, and Tipping Point. These events are incredibly rare, and afterwards everything is different. These global traumas always lead to massive change.

I think we are at that tipping point. This is the singularity. This is our Black Swan Event. Within a 3-year span, we have experienced the following:

  • A global traumatic event (COVID-19).
  • A sudden and seemingly permanent shift from office to remote video meetings mostly from home.
  • Upending of traditional fundamentals of the stock market as the game literally stopped in January 2021.
  • Rapid and widespread availability of Artificial Intelligence.
  • The first generation to be fully raised on the Internet and social media (Gen Z) is now entering the workforce.
  • Ongoing war in Ukraine.

That’s already an overwhelming list, and I could go on, but let’s get back to Barbie’s anxiety disorder.

The awareness about and acceptance of mental health issues has never been higher. The access to treatment never greater. There are now more online therapy options than ever. Treatment options have dramatically expanded in recent years, from Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to ketamine centers and psychedelics, as well as more mainstream options such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and so many more.

What is particularly unique about this moment is the direct access to care. Self-help books abound with many making it to the New York Times bestseller list. YouTube is loaded with fantastic content on overcoming many mental health issues, although one should be careful with selecting reliable sources. Apps like HeadSpace and Calm are being downloaded by millions of people around the globe. Investors provided a record-breaking $1.5 billion to mental health startups in 2020 alone.

For most practitioners, our phones have been ringing off the hook since 2020. Applications to psychology, psychiatric residency, social work, and counseling degree programs are on the rise, with workforce shortages expected to continue for decades. Psychological expertise has been embraced by businesses especially for DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Mental health experts are the most asked-for experts through media request services. Elite athletes are talking openly about bringing us on their teams.

In this unique moment, when everything seems set to transform into something else, it is time for mental health professionals to exert some agency and influence over where mental health will go from here. I think the next frontier for mental health specialists is to figure out how to speak collectively and help guide society.

Neil Howe, in his sweeping book “The Fourth Turning is Here,” says we have another 10 years in this “Millennial Crisis” phase. He calls this our “winter,” and it remains to be seen how we will emerge from our current challenges. I think we can make a difference.

If the Barbie movie is indeed a canary in the coal mine, I see positive trends ahead as we move past some of the societal and structural issues facing us, and work together to create a more open and egalitarian society. We must find creative solutions that will solve truly massive problems threatening our well-being and perhaps even our existence.

There has never been a better time to be (or become!) a mental health professional. I am so grateful to be able to continue to practice and share my thoughts with you here from my home office, and I hope you can take a break and see this movie, which is not only entertaining but also thought- and emotion-provoking.

Dr. Ritvo has almost 30 years’ experience in psychiatry and is currently practicing telemedicine. She is the author of “Bekindr – The Transformative Power of Kindness” (Hellertown, Pa.: Momosa Publishing, 2018). She has no conflicts of interest.

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