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The 10 Best Movies About Mental Health

April 27th, 2011


Accurately depicting mental illnesses — not to mention the psychology and psychiatry professions as a whole — in the media is apparently a daunting task. Most tend to lean towards the sensational for the added drama, but unfortunately end up perpetuating stigmas against the disordered. Even the more sensitive ones still veer into wallbanging territory from time to time. Picking out the 10 best was, of course, a thoroughly subjective task. So please refrain from taking any offense to certain inclusions or exclusions. Leave the high blood pressure for genuine injustices rather than some internet article, OK? OK!

  1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Probably the absolutely quintessential film about psychiatric care, this adaptation of Ken Kesey's classic novel brings to light many of the patient abuses he witnessed while working as a mental health hospital orderly. Things may have improved since the 1960s and 1970s, but many of the condescending, dismissive and downright cruel attitudes towards those with mental illnesses (as chillingly represented by Nurse Ratched) unfortunately persist today. Now a thoroughly respected, oft-referenced film completely independent of its literary origins, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest remains a must-see for anyone interested in the history of treating psychiatric disorders through a fictional lens.

  2. Antichrist: Following the death of their young son, a grieving mother and father isolate themselves from the world and become embroiled in sex, violence, depression and self-destruction. Not inherently about clinical depression or bipolar disorder, but rather the erratic mental state that settles in alongside trauma, it does shed light into how some individuals experience the conditions. Psychology and psychiatric care both factor significantly into both the plot and character development. The mother, known only as She, represents the more primal emotions associated with the grief process. While not a general symbol of how such situations outwardly manifest in the real world, the overwhelming emotions boiling beneath the surface might seem familiar to anyone intensely struggling inside.

  3. Girl, Interrupted: Based on the memoir by Susanna Kaysen's memoir of the same name, Girl, Interrupted chronicles the life of a suicidal woman interred in a mental health facility for her own safety. For over a year, she forms a small coterie with other patients, resists therapy and deals with traumas outside the hospital. But when her issues spiral past the event horizon, the psych ward siren finally displays the drive to take recovery seriously. Both the book and the film candidly discuss the ins and outs of both depression — most especially the form involving suicidal behaviors — and borderline personality disorder. Considering so many in mainstream society don't know about or fully understand the condition, taking the time to grow absorbed in this movie might very well prove a valuable educational experience.

  4. The Virgin Suicides: Sofia Coppola's adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' debut novel perfectly preserved the tragic pressure central to its characters, plot and overall theme. Religious fanatic parents suspend their five daughters in a perpetual state of childish naivete sheltering them from all the pleasures and the pains the world has to offer. Such a lifestyle initiates increasingly desperate, erratic rebellions, most especially in eldest child Lux. Though ultimately a tragic tale (the title pretty much spoils everything), it does delve considerably into how untreated depression and stifling parenting might end up manifesting themselves externally.

  5. The Informant!: The Informant! blends corporate espionage with pitch-black comedy. An adaptation of the infamous Mark Whitacre's very real whistleblowing on lysine price-fixing, the bizarre twist stems directly from his battle with bipolar disorder. The film depicts him as a m–lange of repugnancy and sympathy, touching upon on Whitacre's delusions and how they fed into his bizarre, brilliant, thoroughly unethical scheming. Not everyone with bipolar disorder operates in such a manner, of course, but nevertheless the narrative does reflect some common ways it might present itself. Considering the main character's proclivities, it also appears as if he might sport more than a few traits of sociopathy and narcissism.

  6. Wristcutters: A Love Story: Set in a purgatory state where suicide victims drift about a life more somber than the one they voluntarily sloughed off. A teen discovers his ex-girlfriend suffered the same fate, and he embarks on an oneiric, deeply psychological journey to find her. Bizarrely romantic, Wristcutters: A Love Story approaches its delicate subject matter with a lauded blend of humor and insight. Like most psychological phenomena, the narrative presented here cannot be interpreted as universal to all experiencing it. But nevertheless, it does sensitively dissect the myriad reasons why the depressed and desperate oftentimes perceive death as the only escape from pain.

  7. The Soloist: Between 20% to 40% of the homeless population is comprised of the mentally ill with few options, and The Soloist peers into the compelling biography of one such individual. Nathaniel Ayers enjoyed a promising start as a brilliant bassist (cellist in the movie for some reason), but succumbed to the ravages of schizophrenia. He ended up homeless and floundering in obscurity until a journalist finally crosses his path. Both men find themselves reaching out and trying to improve the other, and today Ayers continues to perform and works as an activist giving hope, support and opportunities to mentally ill musicians.

  8. Psycho: One of Alfred Hitchcock's most iconic, oft-parodied films — based on a book, natch — takes a walk on the darker side of mental health. By no means representative of the entire community, it does showcase the small sliver of the population whose diagnoses directly lead to violence. In this case, dissociative identity disorder takes center stage in the spine-tingling tale of Norman Bates and his "mother." Fans of Freudian psychology will especially find plenty to discuss about the way the two personalities battle for dominance and control within the mind of one truly suffering man.

  9. All About Eve: All About Eve may not be explicitly about mental illness, but the eponymous antagonist displays all the searing signs of sociopathic, narcissistic behavior. To Eve, usurping a rival starlet by passive-aggressively pursuing her career and life alike — including a handsome boyfriend — sounds like a perfectly reasonable plan of action. She lacks any sort of conscience and believes that her ends justify such selfish, reaching needs. At no point does she pause to think about how her machinations might negatively impact those around her, most especially the actress who takes her in as an assistant and protege. All of these signs point to a severely mentally ill individual, though the film itself does not really touch upon that element. Despite that, though, it still serves as an interesting lesson in such a diagnosis.

  10. Lars and the Real Girl: Sweet-natured but emotionally and mentally damaged Lars Lindstrom grew up with a distant father, avoidant brother and the crushing guilt of his mother dying giving birth to him. Diagnosed with a delusional disorder, he seeks solace in the arms of his dream woman, Bianca…who just so happens to be a Real Doll. Rather than portraying owners of the sexual aids as shameless perverts trapped in a perpetual state of arrested development, Lars exudes sympathy and realistic motives for his unusual behavior. Diagnosed as delusional and depressive, he attaches to Bianca out of fear. He withdraws from people who love him — not to mention a woman who very much hopes to someday — and runs towards something incapable of making the hurt worse. While some of the featured strategies behind his treatment will raise more than a few eyebrows, in the end it still provides an interesting glimpse into some mental illnesses.


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