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Questions about Joaquin Phoenix's mental health

February 25, 2009 |  3:02 pm

Phoenix_2Joaquin Phoenix's bizarre appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman" on Feb. 11 could be a publicity stunt or evidence Phoenix was drunk or high. But a different explanation is also making the rounds in the blogosphere. Perhaps Phoenix is mentally ill.

The actor-turned-singer looked and acted spaced-out on his appearance on "Letterman." The awkward interview, which drew jokes from Letterman and nervous laughter from the audience, has been the talk of the entertainment industry and even led to a spoof by actor Ben Stiller on the Oscars telecast Sunday. "Letterman" has listed Phoenix as a guest on his show Thursday night.

That's sure to draw high ratings. Perhaps it will also clear up the question of whether Phoenix is still an actor at heart or has truly undergone a behavior change. If taken at face value, the actor would appear to be mentally ill, says Chicago-based psychiatrist Paul Dobransky, a relationships expert and author of "The Secret Psychology of How We Fall in Love."

Dobransky says Phoenix's "socially inappropriate" behavior reflects some of the symptoms of schizophrenia, a brain-based disease that causes people to lose touch with reality. Phoenix's appearance as well as his career change, poor hygiene and grooming, vocal tics (such as muttering) and lack of facial emotion are classic symptoms of mental illness, Dobransky says.

"I was pretty offended by that skit at the Oscars," Dobransky said today in an interview. "It struck me as potentially beating down on the mentally ill."

Dobransky said much of Phoenix's behavior on "Letterman" hinted at mental illness, such as wearing sunglasses, which may suggest paranoia. "There is something wrong. And it's beyond drug abuse." The public should refrain from mocking Phoenix, the psychiatrist said, because real mental illness is cause for compassion.

"The jury is not exactly in on what is happening," Dobransky said. "Whatever it is, it's not funny --whether it's drug abuse, mental illness coming on, or the clumsiest attempt ever at a career change."

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Joaquin Phoenix appeared on the "Late Show with David Letterman" on Feb. 11. Credit: AP photo / CBS / J.P. Flio