Movies have the power to shape how we perceive the world. Here are several films that treat mental illness respectfully and honestly, instead of contributing to stigma.
Hollywood holds a lot of influence when it comes to current cultural beliefs surrounding mental illness, which is why fighting stigma should be a central tenet for filmmakers who tackle psychology and mental health in their projects. Films like Split demonize mental illness by twisting real disorders into monstrous villains. The real horror of mental illness is the pain it inflicts on the person with the disorder. Mental illness can affect those closest to us, but not in the horrifying ways portrayed in Split. The movies in this list are all successful in accurately depicting one or more aspects of mental health conditions.
Kirstin Dunst plays the leading role of Justine in Melancholia, a fantastical science-fiction film giving a terribly real reflection on depression. When I first saw this movie, I was in a severe depressive downswing. I was desperate to feel less alone in my isolation, and this movie helped. It was like a friend sitting down next to me and accepting me without me needing to explain myself.
The story circles around two sisters as Justine prepares to be married (clearly unhappily). There are many moments that capture the listlessness of depression, such as when Justine is served her favorite meal, but she can’t taste it. Other characters try to support Justine in completing basic tasks such as bathing and eating, things that can be excruciatingly difficult for someone with depression. It touches on the compulsive urges that drive self-destructive behavior and the dull ache of depression.
“It tastes like ashes.” – Justine
What Dreams May Come
Another fantastical meditation on the complexities of the human condition, What Dreams May Come stars Robin Williams as Chris Nielsen, a bereaved father who then dies himself, leaving his widow to her severe depression. We follow his journey through “heaven” and “hell” to save his wife who later dies by suicide. The colors in this film are out of this world, and the ideas it presents about severe depression and mental illness are beautifully depicted. There are some problematic ideas about a cure for depression, such as saving yourself to save someone else or that someone can save you from the pain of depression. But these potentially troubling aspects of the movie are overshadowed by poignant lines such as:
“Everyone’s Hell is different. It’s not all fire and pain. The real Hell is your life gone wrong.” – Albert
“What’s true in our minds is true, whether some people know it or not.” – Chris
I had a hard time rewatching this movie after my own father passed away, because there is something about Robin William’s thin-lipped smile that was reminiscent of my dad’s closed mouth grin.
Released in 2001, Prozac Nation stars Christina Ricci as real-life Elizabeth “Lizzie” Wurtzel, a college student with atypical depression. The narrative connects early trauma with current depression as we see Lizzie’s traumas via flashbacks. Lizzie makes risky decisions and alienates people she once pulled close. Despite her success as a journalism student and writer for The Harvard Crimson, Lizzie can’t find happiness. Eventually by seeking professional mental health support and taking the antidepressant Prozac, Lizzie’s life stabilizes.
“Hemingway has his classic moment in ‘The Sun Also Rises’ when someone asks Mike Campbell how he went bankrupt. All he can say is, ‘Gradually, then suddenly.’ That’s how depression hits. You wake up one morning, afraid that you’re gonna live.” – Lizzie
A Disney-Pixar success, Inside Out takes place in the mind of a young girl going through a big life transition. We see the complications of memory formation play out through the personification of five basic emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. We come to understand the importance of each core emotion, even Sadness. Memories are more complex than depicted in this film, but the basic premise is solid — our life experiences become memories which power our personalities. In this movie, the young girl at the center of the story experiences a breakdown of her personality until all her core emotions can learn to work together.
“Do you ever look at someone and wonder, what is going on inside their head?” – Joy
It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Released in 2010, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is an honest portrayal of what can manifest from depression. Following a teenager after a near suicide attempt, Craig Gilner (played by Keir Gilchrist) is admitted into a hospital’s psychiatric ward. What this film doesn’t do is challenge notions about the success and helpfulness of psychiatric wards, which vary greatly in quality and care. And there’s an element of romanticism that is problematic. What this film does well is show the negative self-beliefs that can accompany depression. The film also addresses the common fears that people seeking psychiatric care experience because of the stigma around mental illness.
“Okay, I know you’re thinking, ‘What is this? Kid spends a few days in the hospital and all his problems are cured?’ But I’m not. I know I’m not. I can tell this is just the beginning. I still need to face my homework, my school, my friends. My dad. But the difference between today and last Saturday is that for the first time in a while, I can look forward to the things I want to do in my life.” – Craig
Helen is a 2009 film starring Ashley Judd as Helen Leonard, a college music professor living with severe depression. What is particularly poignant about this story is that it captures the irrationality of depression. There is no trigger, there is just depression. No matter how many times someone asks “why?”, there is no answer that fully explains the underlying causes of depression. From an outside perspective, Helen’s life seems wonderful and successful. Feeling like you have no good reason to be depressed is a common experience for many people with depression. No amount of self-flagellation helps ease the pain, and we see that played out in this movie as Helen spirals.
“Your wife is not unhappy, Mr. Leonard. Your wife is ill.” – Dr. Barnes