7 Movies That Got Mental Illness (Mostly) Right
Editor’s Note: The following post contains spoilers for the movies mentioned.
Finding movies that accurately represent mental illness can feel difficult. When the media we consume seems to always depict people with mental illness as “dangerous” or “scary,” it can be easy to wonder if compassionate depictions of mental illness exist in pop culture at all.
Luckily, a lot of newer movies (and some older ones too!) have made an effort to “get it right” and show mental illness in a realistic and humanizing way. These movies can evoke some powerful responses in viewers who may see their own struggles accurately represented on screen for the first time. With recommendations from our mental health community, we analyzed seven movies to see how they portrayed mental illness.
1. “Silver Linings Playbook”
“Silver Linings Playbook” follows Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man with bipolar disorder who was recently hospitalized and Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), a woman who has mental health struggles of her own — though she is not given a specific diagnosis in the movie. As both cope with the loss of relationships (Pat’s marriage ended in divorce and Tiffany was recently widowed), throughout the movie, they navigate the process together.
According to Mighty community member Sarah D., “The movie captures a well-rounded sense of bipolar disorder without glamorizing mental illness or sugar-coating it.” In addition to portraying mental illness in a humanizing and relatable way, the movie strives to show that everyone is struggling with something. Director David O. Russell, whose son has bipolar disorder, said of the movie in an interview with USA Today,
Pat’s not the only one with issues. His father has OCD. The girlfriend has issues, the sister-in-law has issues. Even his best friend has issues. All the characters are grappling with something. I wanted to show that we’re all in this together.
And while the movie gets mental illness “right” in many ways, it isn’t without flaws. For example, during the movie we find out that Pat’s character is triggered by hearing the song, “My Cherie Amour,” because it was his wedding song and was playing when he found his wife cheating on him. Pat’s therapist later plays the song in the waiting room before his appointment to see if it was still triggering. As Mighty contributor Crystal Lancaster pointed out in her piece, “My Take on ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ as a Woman With Bipolar Disorder,” the therapist’s action was not only unethical, but unrealistic as well.
A therapist would not stealthily plan to have this song playing the moment you came into the office to see if it still ‘triggered’ you. For one, it’s unfair to you. When you’re at the therapist’s office, your guard is up. Yet, you are still extremely vulnerable. Two, psychiatrists don’t try to trick their patients! Why? Why would they do that? So counterproductive. Cruel, even… Sorry, Hollywood. Gotta ding you for that one.
Additionally, some have criticized the ending for tying up “too neatly.” As Mighty community member Maddie B. said,
Silver Linings Playbook is my favorite movie of all time and it’s very relatable. It falls short though in the ending where it gave an impression they were ‘cured’ by love. I don’t think that was the intention, but it looked that way.
Disney’s “Frozen” is an animated movie that shows Anna (Kristen Bell) and Kristoff’s (Jonathan Groff) adventure to save the kingdom of Arendelle, which is trapped in perpetual winter by Elsa’s (Idina Menzel) icy spell. The movie has drawn audiences both young and old, and for many, it was an accurate depiction of anxiety and depression. According to Jennifer Lee, the writer and director of “Frozen,” this was on purpose. In response to a fan’s tweet asking if Elsa did indeed exhibit signs of anxiety and depression like she seemed to, Lee tweeted back that it “definitely was intentional to show anxiety and depression.”
Mighty community member Lindsey P. was surprised by how much she related to the animated movie.
I was shocked by that movie and how much I related to it. Elsa’s journey is a perfect metaphor for my own 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.” Mighty community member Emily F. wrote, “When I’m really in a bad place, I’ll braid my hair and wear a tiara around my house to remind me to ‘Let it go.’”
3. “Black Swan”
“Black Swan” is a psychological horror film that follows Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) as she tries to achieve artistic perfection as a ballerina in the production of “Swan Lake.” The pressure for perfection affects Nina’s mental health, and we see her descend into what many believe to be psychosis.
Carlin Florin, editor and writer for Psychology Today, wrote about how Nina’s mental health struggles are presented.
That process unhinges Nina in a series of scary and heartbreaking scenes that leap between reality and psychosis… Nina compulsively harms herself, scratching her back until she appears to have the wing-shaped ruptures of the swan she so desperately wants to become on stage.
Though the film’s fantastical elements set it apart from a documentary-style expose of the dance world, it does convince viewers that the only reasonable outcome of that career path is mental illness of one form or another: The competition is relentless, the glory is short-lived, the regiment is literally disfiguring to one’s body. Technical mastery is required, and yet, when in character, the dancer is expected to somehow forget the grueling years of training and appear spontaneous and free.
And while the movie perhaps unfairly draws the conclusion that mental illness is the unavoidable conclusion to this type of pressure, it does do a good job of showing a reality many with mental illness face — needing to appear “OK.” Mighty community member Emily F. commented on this saying, “For me, it definitely captured the utter helplessness mixed with the frantic desire to hide it under a perfect façade of normalcy.”
4. “Girl, Interrupted”
“Girl, Interrupted” is set in the 1960s and follows Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder), a woman diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) during her stay in a psychiatric hospital following her suicide attempt. During her stay, Kaysen befriends other women struggling with mental health issues, most notably Lisa Rowe (Angelina Jolie).
People who have been hospitalized or have struggled with their mental health may identify with the characters. Mighty community member Christa O. wrote of the film,
I can relate to that movie with so much intensity that every time I’ve ever watched it, I’ve never been able to do so without tears in my eyes. Being hospitalized so many times throughout my life as a girl and as a woman, this resonates in so many ways that the first time I saw it, I felt myself there.
While the movie is humanizing in many respects, some have argued that it goes too far, romanticizing mental illness and equating it with being “cool but misunderstood.” In a post on The Radical Notion, a clinical social worker wrote,
“Girl, Interrupted,” though one of the more well-known books or movies about mental illness, is certainly not the only popular representation of mental illness out there, but it has, maybe more so than others, resonated deeply with young women. There are, of course, benefits to that, but if you zoom out and look at the bigger picture of the way that mental illness is represented through books and movies, there is a problem. The problem is in the way that it is being romanticized. Through the romanticization of it, mental illness is minimized and beautified and almost turned into something that is cool and desirable as opposed to a painful struggle.
5. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a science-fiction romantic comedy/drama that focuses on the relationship between introverted and anxious Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and free-spirit Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). The central conflict arises from the existence of a procedure that can erase memories — a procedure Clementine undergoes to forget about Joel.
And while the movie never outrightly states mental health diagnoses of either Joel or Clementine, some people with mental illnesses themselves felt their experience was represented in the characters. BuzzFeed community member Georgia Bowden related to Joel because of her own struggle with depression.
He made me understand my feeling of isolation and loneliness, and the fear that I was really crazy when I had an episode of psychotic depression. He also made me understand and accept that bad memories are just as important as good ones in the process of recovery.
Others identify with Clementine, who some speculate exhibits symptoms of bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder (BPD). As Mighty community member Tricia P. commented,
I identify with Clementine so much. They never say she has bipolar disorder, but [in my opinion], it’s a very clear and real portrayal of it. On top of that, [I relate to] the struggle Joel goes through trying to get close to her, to understand her and love her.
Diagnostic speculations aside, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” does raise an interesting question about whether erasing memories of trauma (relationship or otherwise) is even good for an individual at all. The movie undoubtedly shows the ethical failings of the people who work at the memory-erasing facility (casting doubt on its true validity), but the most poignant example of it not being good for the person is that while in the procedure, Joel and Clem realize they don’t really want to forget each other. And while at times we ourselves may seek to forget our past traumas or pretend they didn’t happen, this movie suggests it might be better to remember — because by getting rid of the “bad” memories, we are also depriving ourselves of the good that can come from processing them.
6. “Perks of Being a Wallflower”
“Perks of Being a Wallflower,” based on the book of the same name, is a coming-of-age story primarily about Charlie (Logan Lerman) and how he adjusts to high school after being discharged from a mental health facility for his struggle with depression.
In an interview with The Guardian, author Stephen Chbosky said he decided to turn his book into a movie because, “It’s harder to feel alone if you see dozens of people around you laughing and crying or nodding their heads at the same issues.”
This is indeed how many felt watching the movie. In addition to Charlie’s experience of depression, some have related to the way the movie handles the mental health effects of childhood sexual abuse. As Mighty community member Bobbie S. wrote,
The movie perfectly captures the devastating impact that sexual violence can have and the mental illnesses that often arise from it. As a person with PTSD from sexual trauma, I related so much to the character because the portrayal was accurate.
7. “Donnie Darko”
“Donnie Darko” is a cult-classic science fiction film focusing on Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he navigates his doomsday visions, what it means to be alive and what it means to love. We see Donnie speak to his therapist about his visions (which often include “Frank” the Bunny), and she tells his parents he exhibits symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.
In the movie, we never definitively “know” what is real and what isn’t. This kind of “dubious” reality mimics what it can be like to experience symptoms of mental illness sometimes. Because we see the film through Donnie’s eyes, we see reality as he does, and are frustrated and confused alongside him when people don’t see things the same way or discount his warnings.
Good portrayals of schizophrenia are hard to come by, mostly because the media portrays it as a condition that is inherently dangerous. But Mighty community member Rachel T., who lives with schizophrenia, believes “Donnie Darko” does a good job.
I just felt such a complete feeling with this movie. The ‘imaginary’ friend which was really something else in the end. It’s all twisted and I love it because that’s how I feel with my schizophrenia. The feelings. The hallucinations. Everything.
What movies did we miss? Share in the comments below.