Movies about mental illness have a way of sparking our interest and getting us to ponder on issues related to mental health. Every now and then a film comes along that you feel really speaks to you and that really seems to “get” you. Suddenly the world doesn’t feel as lonely, and you get the feeling that somebody somewhere understands you and what you’re going through. This positive lift may even be described as therapeutic.
If you live with a mental illness, one thing is to understand intellectually that you don’t have any reason to feel ashamed. Another is to really understand and grasp that things are never as bad as they may seem. That feeling of being OK with having to cope with your disorder can go a long way in encouraging you and helping you manage it.
Another benefit of movies about mental illness realistically is to counter any public mental health stigma and general lack of knowledge — they help humanize people that live with mental illness. Though not always easy to watch, and to help you get ready for Mental Health Awareness Month (observed annually in May), below are some of the best movies about mental illness that capture life as seen through the eyes of individuals whom many of us can easily relate to.
“The Hours,” 2002 (Depression)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, “The Hours” is a bold, tangible sojourn through common human experiences such as mental anguish, alienation, and the complex interconnectedness between ourselves and others. We follow writer Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) as she delves into the writing of her novel “Mrs. Dalloway,” Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) as a floundering post-World War II housewife as she reads Woolf’s novel and rapidly approaches her own inner collapse.
We also watch Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) in 2001 New York City plan a party for her friend who is suffering from AIDS along with another writer. Depression, suicide, and their effects touch and pull all three of the women together along with the viewer into a mutual understanding of what these things are, what they mean, and how they affect all of us in some way or other.
“Donnie Darko,” 2001 (Paranoid Schizophrenia)
This science-fiction film has become a cult classic. Donnie Darko, played by a young Jake Gyllenhaal, tries to keep it together amid an ongoing flow of daytime hallucinations that explore the nature of living and loving. Donnie often speaks candidly with his therapist about these perceived visions (often featuring a large and unsettlingly haunting bunny known as Frank), and she subsequently informs his parents that he seems to be manifesting symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.
The movie, shown through Donnie’s perceptive standpoint, never distinguishes between what is real and what are merely figments of the imagination, which helps drive home the point that those with mental illnesses often can’t make that differentiation. We feel frustrated, confused, and diminished as the protagonist must feel as he experiences this dreamscape life where no one ever believes his warnings and descriptions of what is going on all around him. Though the media typically portrays paranoid schizophrenia as something dangerous, eventually, we the viewers stop having to figure everything out, learn to let go, and surrender to things as they are.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” 2004 (Mental illness and forgetting about trauma)
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” blurs the line between romantic comedy/drama and science fiction while telling the story of the relationship between Joel (Jim Carrey) and free-spirited Clementine (Kate Winslet). The central storyline revolves around a fictional procedure that can erase memories. Clementine undergoes the procedure in order to forget about Joel after things start to go awry between them.
Traces of psychosis, depression, bipolar disorder, and the importance of remembering as a component of recovery all emerge for Joel as he desperately continues trying to get Clementine to remember him. The film is an emotive story that you may find very relatable in terms of coming to terms with mental illness.
Say what you will about remembering and forgetting, eventually Joel and Clementine come to the realization they really don’t want to forget one another. Some may advocate for blotting out traumatic memories and “getting on with life,” but “Eternal Sunshine” suggests that remembering the negative is also a surefire way to highlight the positive aspects of our past.
“Melancholia,” 2011 (Depression)
“Melancholia,” an artistically enticing film that gives us a glimpse into depression at a most visceral level. The title makes reference to a newly discovered planet that is deemed to be on a collision course with Earth. Two of the main characters, sisters Justine and Claire, each deal with the news differently.
Justine shows outward signs of depression on her wedding day as her family shows itself to be one big dysfunctional mess. Claire, on the other hand, internalizes all her misgivings about her family and their mass of problems. The planet shows itself to be an outward reflection of Claire’s depression and anxiety over her family and personal life. Claire’s introspection is driven by a growing fear that the planet Melancholia is going to end all life on Earth as we know it.
This visually captivating film speaks not only to mental illness but also to familial relationships and how we cope with life itself.
“Silver Linings Playbook,” 2012 (Bipolar Disorder)
“Silver Linings Playbook” is about Pat (Bradley Cooper), a man compelled to spend some time in a mental hospital after a violent rage-driven outburst sparked by his finding his wife in bed with another man. It turns out he has a serious case of bipolar disorder, and upon his release, he moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) as he continues to recover. Though his wife has betrayed him and their marriage, he is determined to win back her affections and go back to “the way things once were,” during which time he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany offers to help Pat in his efforts to win over his wife, as long as he agrees to be her ballroom dance partner for a competition. The film very realistically depicts the wide spectrum of emotions experienced by those with bipolar disorder.
Other honorable mentions include “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “Fight Club” (1999), and “Shutter Island” (2010) So now you have some binge-worthy movies for this weekend! Did we miss any personal favorites of yours? Let us know!
Do you or someone you love need help in managing a mental illness? If so, talk to someone about mental health issues that seem overwhelming. We can help. Consider reaching out to our expert team at Solara Mental Health at 844-600-9747.