Films that depict mental health issues often do well at the box office. Some of them, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, go on to win Oscars and become classics. Many people have an interest in films about mental health because they shed light on conditions that many may not understand. Across genres, audiences have been captivated by films with underlying mental health themes ranging from schizophrenia to codependency to psychosis.
Although they may be earnest in their depiction, it is important to note that not every movie that addresses mental health is accurate when it comes to the portrayal of mental health characteristics, and mental health symptoms can vary from person to person. If a movie with a mental health theme piques your curiosity, you can visit GoodTherapy.org’s PsychPedia to learn more about specific conditions.
Here are some examples of mainstream fictional films depicting a range of mental health conditions you can watch for information, entertainment, and intrigue.
1. Shutter Island (2010) (Posttraumatic Stress, Psychosis)
If intense psychological thrillers are what you seek, Shutter Island is a movie you may want to watch. It will leave you wondering if Teddy Daniels—the main character played by Leonardo DiCaprio—is really experiencing delusions.
U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner head to a psychiatric hospital located on an island to determine what happened to a missing patient. Not long after showing up, bizarre occurrences happen and it would seem that the supposed U.S. marshal turns out to be Andrew Laeddis—the facility’s most dangerous patient. His therapist, who is well aware of Teddy’s delusions, prompts him to act out his delusion, hoping that the delusion will break so he can face reality.
But a painful reality may be easier to run from than face and accept. It would seem as if Teddy agrees and at the end of the movie he asks an interesting question: “This place makes me wonder which would be worse—to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”
According to many who interpret this question, Teddy is aware that if he accepts his guilt of the horrific tragedy that happened to his family, he will be forced to live with the pain. On the other hand, if he continues to live in his delusion, he can live and eventually die unaware of the crimes he committed.
2. The Soloist (2009) (Schizophrenia)
The Soloist is a movie that looks at the life of a person experiencing schizophrenia. The movie is based on the true story of Nathanial Ayers, a promising student at the prestigious Julliard School who experiences a mental breakdown during his third year at Julliard. Perhaps the pressure was too much, or maybe he had been experiencing mild symptoms until they became severe enough to cause a disruption in his life.
For various reasons, including his refusal to take medication for schizophrenia, Nathanial becomes homeless. Steve Lopez, a journalist, meets Nathanial in Los Angeles and the two become friends. Lopez, upon discovering that Nathanial can play the cello brilliantly, sets out on a mission to help him with his mental health.
The Soloist demonstrates how untreated mental health challenges can contribute to a person slipping through society’s cracks. It also depicts how reaching out can have a profound impact on the life of someone experiencing a mental health issue.
3. Prozac Nation (2001) (Depression, Substance Abuse)depression and substance abuse.
The movie follows Lizzie (portrayed by Christina Ricci) as she tries to overcome severe depression without medication. She instead tries to treat herself using drugs, sex, self-mutilation, and escapism. She balks at reality and tries to commit suicide, severs relationships with her family, treats others around her in an abhorrent way, and seems to have no hope until she is put on a new medication called Prozac. This movie sheds some light on how antidepressants can help some people dampen the symptoms of severe depression and seek treatment.
4. The Hours (2002) (Depression)
This movie about mental health examines the lives of three women who are coping with depression. The story depicts three generations of women throughout various stages in their lives.
Depression impacts each of the protagonists in the film. Author Virginia Woolf is writing the story of Mrs Dalloway in 1923, while grappling with depression, suicidal ideation, and her sexual orientation; a young mother in 1951 struggles with reservations about her role in her family, her sexuality, and suicidal ideation; and Clarissa Vaughan, a publisher, questions her role in the lives of her loved ones in 2001. This film illustrates the weight of depression and introduces the question, “Is it better to live life based upon doing what you want in order to be happy, or on others’ expectations?”
5. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) (Antisocial Personality)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic film about mental health and psychiatry, based on the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey. Jack Nicholson plays R.P. McMurphy, who is in a mental institution after committing a crime.
The movie paints a picture of how in the not so distant past mental health institutions were sometimes operated inhumanely. Its scenes of electroshock therapy and lobotomies were once considered normal paths to recovery for many people experiencing mental concerns. The film emphasizes that people with mental health diagnoses are human and ought to be treated with dignity.
6. Ordinary People (1980) (Depression)
In this mental health film starring Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore, you meet a family coping with grief after the death of one of the sons. The living son cannot bear the loss and tries to commit suicide. The family begins treatment for him and an emotional journey for the whole family ensues.
This film explains how grief manifests in different ways. The boy is stigmatized at school, and family life is hectic and tense at times. Ordinary People gives viewers insight into how tragedy can cause disruptions in regard to both mental health and family dynamics.
7. Girl, Interrupted (1999) (Borderline Personality)
Girl, Interrupted, starring Winona Ryder, is set in 1967 and tells the story of Susanna, an 18-year-old woman who is experiencing feelings of depression and has many unanswered, self-reflective questions. After a suicide attempt, she is sent to a psychiatric institution to receive the help her parents feel she needs. Reluctantly, she goes and meets other women who have their own mental health issues they are living with. Once she is there for a period of time, she is given the diagnosis of borderline personality and struggles to accept it.
Learn More about Mental Health
These films and others give us glimpses into other people’s experiences, thoughts, and behaviors and invite us to expand our awareness when it come to mental health issues. If you wish to understand a mental health condition that you or a loved one are experiencing, you can always seek the help of a qualified therapist. Therapy can help you cope with unwanted symptoms and take steps toward creating a happier, healthier life. Mental health concerns can be detrimental to your well-being, but they do not define you as a person and there is help available in your community.
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