7 Fictional Films about Mental Health

Girls surprised during a movieFilms 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)

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll may have been an “escape” back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but the reality is that many people seeking these escapes may be dealing with underlying issues. Prozac Nation furnishes watchers with a deep look at the world of those experiencing 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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  • Jillian

    Jillian

    September 12th, 2014 at 1:47 PM

    All such great films and/or books depicting the horrors of what it can be like trying to live in the midst of others when you are struggling so mightily with these demons within. Great choices, and hopefully there will be those who will add these to their netflix list for the weeked. Thre are even a few that I wouldn’t mind seeing again.

  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    September 13th, 2014 at 6:28 AM

    Thanks for writing this article. I’ve sometimes assigned movies – some of the ones you mentioned – as homework for clients or for friends and family of people with mental illnesses. I’ve also given other film or television homework as ways to identify what is normal. A favorite there is the television series Parenthood, which depicts a flawed but connected family which for the most part fights fair.

    My pet peeve with film and television is when therapists are depicted as unethical. Of course, some are, but I hate to think of someone in need who is on the fence being tipped away from therapy by such a portrayal. Therapist characters on television, especially, often break confidentiality. Rarely is that portrayed appropriately or (I hope) accurately.

    On the other hand, one of the movies you mentioned, Ordinary People, has a wonderful performance by Judd Hirsh as a caring but appropriate therapist who clearly makes a major difference in the life of his patient, played by Timothy Hutton. This movie also does a memorable job of showing the powerful affects of parents on their children. There are other cinematic instances that are also positive.

    Film and television are so much a part of most of our clients lives (and our own). I think it’s wonderful to make use of them in our work.

  • Seth

    Seth

    September 13th, 2014 at 10:41 AM

    I agree with Catherine.
    I think that movies can often do a lot of good but I think that there are times when they give you a very unrealistic perception of what people are like as a whole or what a situation is like and the public tends to believe that because that is the only experiencewthat they may have with it.
    I know that hte point of most movies will be to entertain but I tend to enjoy them a whole lot more when I can also get something a little more educational out of that entertainment.

  • Eugene

    Eugene

    September 14th, 2014 at 5:12 AM

    As long as we realize that these are, no matter how realistic, still fictionalized depictions of life with a mental illness, then I find that we tend to do much better with them. This can’t be what your story will be because all stories are unique and are specified by your own personal experiences. Maybe these films can give you an IDEA of what living life with a mental illness could look like, but by no means do I think that you should then expect your experience with it to be exactly the same. They are great for guidance, for some education, and even for some smiles and tears in certain instances, but please take them for what they are meant to be, entertainment, not the only education about mental illness that one should have.

  • bethany

    bethany

    September 15th, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    I have seen a few of these movies but the one that spoke the most to me was Girl Interrupted. I guess it just happened to come out at a time in my life when I was going through my own struggle with depression and I could relate to a lot of the characters in the film as well as the setting that it was in. Great film for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

  • Mike

    Mike

    September 15th, 2014 at 1:22 PM

    That Shutter Island movie?
    Intense but weird!

  • Myselves

    Myselves

    September 16th, 2014 at 11:50 AM

    Two things.
    1. Isn’t the soloist a true story?
    2. A Beautiful Mind was a great story for illustrating the perspective of someone who suffers from Schizophrenia.

  • Jada2

    Jada2

    September 22nd, 2014 at 3:19 PM

    I haven’t heard of The Soloist but it sounds intriguing especially if it is based on a true story. I think that films like this which are done well can give those who struggle with mental illness new hope, as well as show their friends and family that there are others like them going through the exact same things, and that there are tings that all of us can help do together to reach out and seek help for them.

  • Mike Jackson, MFT

    Mike Jackson, MFT

    September 26th, 2014 at 2:38 PM

    A Beautiful Mind (2001) does an extraordinary job of connecting the audience to the perceptual reality that governs the lives of individuals with paranoid schizophrenia.

  • Tim

    Tim

    October 6th, 2014 at 7:05 AM

    Better idea….use real life politicians and then throw in some pro bono psychiatric treatments. We’d all be winners then.

  • John

    John

    March 7th, 2016 at 6:28 AM

    I have seen not so long ago Shutter Island… it is kind of… personal… weird.. I have seen it and it made me feel that way… weird…. Haven’t seen yet ordinary people. def. should watch.

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