Mental health isn’t the most inviting subject when it comes to cinema. Stigmatized, complex, and often misunderstood, it can be unpleasant at best and easy to misrepresent at worst. That’s why it’s so important to recognize, and celebrate, movies that treat mental illness with integrity; an issue that will affect approximately one in four people at least once in their lives.
It’s not just about being bold enough to address the subject, but also that the best movies about mental illness represent it in the right way. No raving killers or quirky heroes who were imagining the alien conspiracy all along. Whatever tone they take, whether gritty, light-hearted, or even abstracted, these are the films that understand the gravity of their subject matter and hit it with respect. And even, sometimes, a few laughs.
I have personally see all these movies and feel they are great depictions of people living mental illness.
- Benny and Joon – Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson
The film follows the lives of brother Benny and sister Joon who live together after their parents pass away. Joon meets Sam and they begin to fall in love. Joon is widely considered to be schizophrenic. In the film, Benny says that Joon often hears voices and is very sensitive to noise. Benny & Joon was very refreshing because it showed a mentally ill person in a romantic relationship. People with developmental disabilities and/or mental illnesses are often considered incapable of being in a healthy romantic relationship. Even Joon’s brother Benny was outraged to find out that she and Sam were involved, so much that he threatened to send her to a group home. This prejudice is very common. However, Sam and Joon reunite and live a happy life together in their own apartment. They are last seen making grilled cheese sandwiches together with an iron happily. Benny & Joon showed the world that just because someone is a little different from the status quo doesn’t mean they can’t be in healthy, loving, happy relationships.
- As Good As It Gets – Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear
A reclusive author with obsessive-compulsive disorder strikes up a relationship with a single mother and a friendship with a gay artist. While the movie’s view on how to deal with obsessive-compulsive disorder may be over-simplified, Nicholson is terrific in depicting the condition’s potential symptoms, including the fear of contamination, and how it can alienate people from those around them.
- Silver Linings Playbook – Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence
After a period in a mental institution, a former teacher moves back in with his parents and gets close with a recently widowed woman. It resonates with audience members who saw it as a relatively fair and balanced depiction of manic depression and bipolar disorder.
- Forrest Gump – Tom Hanks and Gary Sinise
Centers on the life of Forrest Gump, a man with intellectual disability. Though Forrest himself may be challenged, the main condition covered in this movie is post-traumatic stress disorder. This affects Forrest’s Vietnam War platoon leader Lieutenant Dan Taylor, who struggles to adjust to life after the war, which leaves him a cripple, although it all eventually ends on heartwarming terms.
- A Beautiful Mind – Russell Crowe
The 2001 biographical drama A Beautiful Mind was directed by Ron Howard and based on the life of famed mathematician John Nash. The film follows John’s slow development of paranoid schizophrenia.
A Beautiful Mind is an accurate take on the mental illness for many reasons. John Nash’s character is relatable. He is not depicted as a monster, as those with paranoid schizophrenia often are. He is an awkward, sweet, and very smart man who is forced to watch his relationships crumble and the people he loves get hurt as a result of a mental illness he cannot control. The focus of the film is not entirely on how hard it is for families of mentally ill people, though. The film provides an internal and honest interpretation of John’s feeling and suffering and is sympathetic towards him.
The ending of A Beautiful Mind is quite inspiring. There is unfortunately no cure for schizophrenia, and John continues to deal with his hallucinations while living his life as best he can.
- Inside Out
Inside Out highlights the varied cognitive responses, processes and emotions that all humans experience through the lens of an 11-year-old girl who finds herself feeling lonely and isolated after moving to a new city with her parents. It’s a film that offers insight into why we feel happy sometimes and sad, or angry, or scared other times and, just as importantly, why that’s perfectly okay. Upon release, Inside Out became a powerful tool for therapists everywhere—with patients of all ages.
Elsa’s journey is a perfect metaphor for those who battle with depression and anxiety. She believes her ice powers (which are controlled by her emotions) make her a bad person, because of a mistake in her past, so she lives in isolation, trying not to feel. Throughout her journey, she learns that while her emotions can lead to some struggles and mistakes, they can also lead to something very beautiful. In the end, she learns how to control her powers. They don’t go away and there’s still room for error, which I think perfectly represents how you can’t always ‘cure’ a mental illness, but you can treat it and learn to live with it. Elsa’s trademark song “Let it Go,” has also become an anthem for many people with mental illness who, like Elsa, have been told, “conceal, don’t feel.”
Anita Levesque is a web and graphic designer, a mental health advocate with lived experience through loved ones; father – bipolar; brother – PTSD, depression, anxiety; mother – PTSD; boyfriend – clinical depression, severe OCD, GAD, personality disorders. The goal of her website, http://mentalillness-doyouknow.com is to focus on personal experiences rather than articles by doctors and medical professionals who haven’t experienced mental illness. Anita writes articles for several websites on topics such as OCD, Addictions, Suicide, PTSD and more. She resides in Stoney Creek, Ontario and interests are photography, reading, music, learning, spending time with her family.