For years, mental health has suffered under the weight of stigmatization. Yet, as filmmakers and TV creators are starting to weave mental health themes more frequently into their works, we’re seeing the layers of this stigma gradually peel away. But if these struggles are depicted inaccurately, it often ends up reinforcing the stigma. In the past, characters with mental illnesses were often reduced to plot devices or trivialized.
Hence, it’s vital for filmmakers to portray mental health issues correctly, without turning characters into mere eccentric or unusual props. Mental health is not a fad; it’s a daily battle for many people. Here are 10 movies that manage to get the portrayal of mental health struggles right.
Beautiful Boy (2018)
Based on true events, Beautiful Boy narrates the story of a young man, Nic, battling drug addiction, and his father, David, who’s committed to help him, at all costs. Timothee Chalamet and Steve Carell give moving performances that effectively show how addiction can consume an individual’s life.
Unlike other addiction-themed films, Beautiful Boy delves into the frustrations and resistance that come with seeking help. It vividly portrays the harsh reality of hitting rock bottom for those grappling with severe drug addiction. The movie focuses particularly on how a family is affected and the feeling of helplessness experienced by parents whose child is unwilling to seek help.
The film shines at depicting the various facets of drug addiction – from Nic’s physical transformation, mood swings, cognitive function to the impact on his relationships – all telltale signs of someone fighting addiction.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a coming-of-age movie, revolves around an incoming high school freshman, Charlie (Logan Lerman), who befriends two seniors, Sam and Patrick (Emma Watson and Ezra Miller).
Early in the movie, Charlie reveals the death of his Aunt Helen in a car accident when he was just seven. As the movie progresses, a series of flashbacks gradually unfold the shocking reality – Aunt Helen had sexually abused him as a child. This revelation sends Charlie into an emotional tailspin, leading to total isolation and eventual hospitalization. Charlie spends roughly two months in a mental health facility, slowly reconciling with his trauma and personal identity.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower masterfully captures the realities of PTSD, sexual abuse, and trauma. It’s one of the few movies that accurately depict suppressed memories, a typical symptom of PTSD, showing how the brain often buries traumatic memories, making them inaccessible during regular consciousness.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
In cinema, bipolar disorder often gets misrepresented. Typical stereotypes associated with the condition include violent tendencies, unpredictability, and continuous negative thought patterns. While these symptoms may be present in some individuals, they don’t define everyone with bipolar disorder.
In Silver Linings Playbook, Pat, portrayed by Bradley Cooper, exhibits some of these symptoms. After his release from a psychiatric hospital following a violent outburst at his wife’s lover, he encounters Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed woman also living with bipolar disorder.
Despite sharing the same condition, the film depicts how differently they experience their mental illness. Silver Linings Playbook does a remarkable job of portraying various facets of bipolar disorder, including manic and depressive episodes.
Inside Out (2015)
You might not expect a kid’s flick to nail the portrayal of mental illness, but Inside Out does just that. The animated feature centers around Riley, who’s navigating several big changes in her life like moving across the country and starting at a new school. While Riley is the primary character, the true heart of the film lies in her emotions: Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Joy, and Anger.
This movie zeroes in on how we handle our feelings, something that’s often a hurdle for youngsters and teens grappling with mental illness. It underscores the importance of emotional equilibrium and the futility of dodging our feelings, especially the “bad” ones like sadness and anger, which are part and parcel of life.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)
Based on a popular YA novel, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story revolves around Craig, a high school junior, who admits himself into a psychiatric hospital due to suicidal thoughts. He expects a quick wellness check and to be sent home but instead, he’s required by law to stay for a week or until the medical team discharges him.
During his stay, Craig meets a mix of individuals, two of whom, played by Zach Galifianakis and Emma Roberts, become integral to his journey. This film thoughtfully incorporates heavy subjects like suicide
attempts and self-harm, demonstrating the realities of mental illness recovery with a touch of humor to dispel the misconception that individuals struggling are invariably miserable.
The movie’s original author, Ned Vizzini, tragically took his own life in 2013 after battling depression for years. This story was inspired by his own experience in a mental health facility in 2004.
Black Swan (2010)
Black Swan is a gripping drama that delves into self-harm, disordered eating, and psychotic breakdowns. It tracks the life of a ballerina named Nina (Natalie Portman), who secures the lead role in Swan Lake. The challenge of embodying both the grace of the white swan and the darkness of the black swan spirals her into a psychotic meltdown.
Throughout the movie, Nina grapples with hallucinations, blurring the lines between reality and illusion. One scene reveals bleeding scratches on her arm, presumably self-inflicted. With her constant delusions, it’s hard for us to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.
Throughout the movie, Nina wrestles with a range of disorders including anxiety, OCD, disordered eating, and delusional thinking. Though not explicitly diagnosed in the film, these symptoms suggest some form of personality disorder characterized by erratic and inflexible thought patterns.
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Girl, Interrupted is a renowned film that explores borderline personality disorder, a condition that affects a person’s self-perception and ability to function in everyday life. The film’s lead, Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder), is admitted to a psychiatric ward for BPD treatment.
During her stay, Susanna meets Lisa, a diagnosed sociopath (played by Angelina Jolie), whose symptoms include manipulation and deceit, indicating antisocial personality disorder, a condition where an individual disregards moral and ethical norms.
Certain scenes in this film are shockingly accurate, such as Lisa ridiculing another patient for being sexually assaulted and showing no guilt. The movie underscores the harsh impact of severe personality disorders. It’s one of the rare films that depicts a sociopath without resorting to the stereotype of inherent violence or homicidal tendencies.
To the Bone (2017)
To the Bone tells the story of 20-year-old Ellen (Lily Collins), who is battling severe anorexia nervosa. After several relapses post-treatment, she’s admitted to a group home recovery center with six other patients.
Initially, Ellen resists treatment, a common trait among individuals with eating disorders where harmful habits become coping mechanisms. This resistance is vividly portrayed in the film.
To the Bone commendably represents different types of eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Not all eating disorders involve body image and self-starvation, and the film’s unglamorous portrayal of these symptoms deserves applause.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Little Miss Sunshine is yet another movie that does justice to the portrayal of mental health. The plot centers around a family’s cross-country voyage in their trusty van, determined to get their little girl to her beauty contest. Beneath the charming humor and cuteness, the film broaches a serious topic: major depressive disorder.
One of the central characters is Uncle Frank, brought to life by Steve Carell. Unemployed and reeling from the emotional fallout of his relationship, Frank attempts suicide. Since his insurance wouldn’t cover his treatment, he’s left under the care of Sheryl, played by Toni Collette.
Despite grappling with depression and suicidal thoughts, Frank consistently shows deep care for his family in the film. It highlights that those battling depression aren’t always visibly unhappy, often concealing their emotional pain with a smile.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Next up, we’ve got The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger’s masterful portrayal of the Joker was the result of six weeks of isolation in a hotel room. His preparation paid off, evident in the unsettlingly deranged and psychotic character he brought to life.
In several scenes, Ledger’s character exhibits violence, emotional detachment, and isolation, typical signs of psychopathy. The film walks a fine line in its depiction of mental health in the horror/thriller genre. It does a commendable job of illustrating how past trauma can express itself in violent, distressing ways, spotlighting the struggle of breaking free from the cycle of generational trauma.
Joker (2019) offers another peek into mental health. Here, the Joker (portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix) experiences feelings of persecution and delusions, indicative of paranoid schizophrenia. The film’s depiction of Joker’s plunge into madness paints a vivid picture of the psychological torment he endures, making for a challenging watch.