Ready, Set, Action: Realistic Mental Health Movies

When I was about 8, I saw a thriller movie about a mental health ward. It was my first exposure to mental illness. Little did I know that the film did not portray mental illness accurately at all. The mystique and surrealism of patients and mental health hospitals in that film did not account for the psychosocial context and everyday experiences of patients. As I learned more about psychology and mental health care, I learned two important things:

  1. Patients with mental illness are rarely portrayed accurately in films
  2. Many movies severely stigmatize mental illness

Movies are the only place where many people are exposed to experiences different than their own. Dramatizing mental health experiences can often make a movie more suspenseful and intense, but at the cost of creating untrue stereotypes. The crux of this is that incorrect portrayal of mental health care and people with mental health conditions can prevent people from seeking mental health treatment. The ubiquity of this problem is why movies that correctly depict life with a mental health condition are to be praised.

Here are some suggestions if you’re looking for a movie that accurately addresses mental health:

A Beautiful Mind: The Realistic Symptoms

Award-winning and critically acclaimed, A Beautiful Mind tells the story of famed economist John Nash (Russel Crowe) and his development of schizophrenia. The reason why I have a particular fondness for this movie is because I did not know the premise while watching it, so I experienced the plot as Nash did. As his hallucinations became more complex, I became more confused and distressed. Why is his college friend suddenly controlling? Why is the government blackmailing him? Seeing these events through Nash’s lens causes the viewer to empathize with the difficulty of distinguishing reality from hallucinations. It depicts how it is easy for individuals with schizophrenia to act as the hallucinations instruct them.

I would be remiss if I did not mention some unique aspects of Nash’s case. While A Beautiful Mind is a true story, most hallucinations are auditory and not visual. Additionally, schizophrenia is often accompanied by a prior decrease in working memory. Essentially, it is rare that someone with schizophrenia would have a university faculty job at an ivy league school. However, I think that’s even more evidence of the beauty of the mind – you cannot put individuals in a box, and diagnoses do not dictate one’s life course.

Good Will Hunting: The Therapeutic Relationship

You might be thinking, “but Will (Matt Damon) doesn’t have a mental illness!” But that is exactly what makes this movie golden when it comes to the portrayal of mental health. Will is a complex young man – brilliant, yet disadvantaged in many ways. He has an impoverished upbringing and no family, and feels insecure about it all. This gets in the way of his career options and budding romance. The therapeutic relationship between Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) and Will takes time to build. Sean is patient with Will throughout the process, realizing you can’t force vulnerability. He does not give up on Will, and displays a blend of sternness and fun in sessions. The outcome is that Will realizes his negative life experiences are not his fault, and he does not have to feel guilty pursuing these good opportunities his intellect provides. He also discovers that he gets to decide what success means to him. These feelings of guilt and misdirection are common subclinical depression and anxiety symptoms, and represent the continuum that is mental health. How ‘bout them apples?

 About a Boy: The Psychosocial Context

You mean the rom-com featuring Hugh Grant? Yes, that one! In the film, Fiona, Marcus’ mom, suffers from depression and attempts to take her life. This is depicted in a subplot and short scenes (e.g. her crying while pouring cereal and confiding in her single parents’ group). Throughout her depression, Fiona still cares for her son. She walks him to school, shows affection toward him, and pursues outside help because she recognizes her own limitations. Fiona’s depression, while not the central focus of the film, in a sense drives the whole plot by bringing Marcus to seek help from others. Marcus tries to both make his mom happy and articulate his distress and fears to others, but as a young kid he has neither the tact nor language to succeed. The ultimate moral of About a Boy is that “No man is an island.” A community (family, friends, mental health providers, support groups) are needed for recovery. Further, mental health issues affect more than just the individual experiencing them, and we can all take part to help recovery.

These are certainly not comprehensive of all the well-made, accurate mental health movies. However it goes to show that a good movie does not have to be dramatic or rely on untrue stereotypes to depict mental illness. Most people learn to cope with the challenges that face them and no two cases are the same. What are your favorite accurate mental health movies?

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