Millions of people are affected by mental illness. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States live with a diagnosed condition, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Although mental health conditions are fairly common, they’re not often portrayed on the big screen, and the movies that do portray mental health conditions have varied in their accuracy and sensitivity, according to a joint report published in May 2019 by the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the David and Lura Lovell Foundation.
Some storylines seem to stigmatize mental health conditions, while others get things right and accurately depict what it’s like to have a mental health concern or care for someone who does, according to the report.
In this list you’ll find movies that discuss a wide range of issues — from anxiety and trauma to bipolar disorder, depression, suicide, and schizophrenia — but the way they’re handled is careful and accurate, experts say. Here are our expert-chosen picks.
1. ‘Silver Linings Playbook’
In Silver Linings Playbook, viewers follow the lives of Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper), who has bipolar disorder, and Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), who has an unnamed mental health condition. The film opens when Pat is released from a mental health facility after a mandatory eight-month stay for beating up the lover of his wife, Nikki, and it quickly becomes apparent that viewers are in for an intense and emotional ride.
Pat is determined to get his old life back, including his career as a substitute teacher and his relationship with his wife, who left him and filed a restraining order against him. He meets Tiffany, with whom he develops a complicated friendship based on their similar mental health issues, and how they can help each other achieve their individual goals.
“The movie brought awareness to the struggles [of people living with mental health challenges] and the need for treatment and medication,” says Raafat Girgis, MD, the medical director of Moment of Clarity Mental Health Center in Orange County, California.
“It’s Hollywood, so there are still going to be things that are there more for the story than for accuracy,” said the psychiatrist Steven Schlozman, MD, in an interview with Vulture. “But they did a very nice job of depicting manic depressive illness or bipolar disorder in somebody who’s quite bright, and who has limited but present insight on it.”
Silver Linings Playbook, Netflix
2. ‘A Beautiful Mind’
The 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind is a powerful film about life with a progressive mental health condition. It was inspired by the true story of the Nobel Prize–winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. and based on the biography of Nash of the same name by Sylvia Nasar.
Though a bit of an outsider, Nash (Russell Crowe) makes a quick ascent to fame for his research on “game theory,” which contradicts over a century’s worth of prior economic thought. But as the government continues to vie for his attention, his paranoid schizophrenia (a mental health condition involving hallucinations, delusions, and other thinking problems) begins to take complete control of his life, causing Nash to believe Soviet spies are after him.
“This film portrays a fascinating mind that is not like others around him,” says Ashley Peña, LCSW, the executive director at Mission Connection, a virtual therapy platform. “It portrays a special case, as he does recover. And while his diagnosis has been questioned by many, it’s safe to say that Nash did struggle with some form of thought or mood disorder that impacted him and the people around him.”
“A Beautiful Mind is actually a favorite of mine,” Dr. Girgis says, adding that it challenges common and incorrect stigmas that suggest people with mental health conditions are not intelligent or teachable.
A Beautiful Mind, YouTube
3. ‘The Great Depresh’
Part documentary, part stand-up comedy, The Great Depresh is an HBO special focused on the comedian Gary Gulman’s mental health journey as someone living with depression and anxiety. It’s hilarious and moving all at once, says Brett Wean, the director of writing and entertainment outreach at American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“This film goes beyond a general focus on mental health and seriously delves into topics such as Gulman’s psychiatric hospitalization and experience receiving ECT,” says Wean.
“Aside from being funny, Gulman bares his experiences in a raw, authentic way — conveying painful feelings and difficulties while still managing to be hopeful — and the fact that he’s still here with us, proactively managing his mental health on an everyday basis, just as he would an issue of physical health … is incredibly encouraging for viewers,” says Wean.
The Great Depresh, HBO
4. ‘Love Actually’
Although Love Actually is one of the most popular romantic comedies of the past 20 years, many fans may not initially realize it’s a film with scenes about mental illness. The film follows the lives of eight couples in London, England. As Wean points out, the plotline of one of the main characters, Sarah (Laura Linney), revolves around a mental health condition.
“Linney’s character lives with the secret that her brother has schizophrenia and lives in a psychiatric facility,” Wean explains. “She loves him very much and constantly takes his telephone calls, much to the detriment of the rest of her life. There are no healthy boundaries set up, and she has no support because she doesn’t share this aspect of her life with anyone.”
By the end of the film, her unwillingness to talk about it with anyone costs her a relationship with a man she’s interested in, Wean notes.
This film accurately portrays the difficulties of caring for someone living with a serious mental health condition, adds Wean. It sheds light on the struggles and challenges many loved ones face. Wean says he hopes the film also serves as a reminder that mental health conditions are nothing to be ashamed of — for the people living with the condition or the individuals who care for them.
Love Actually, YouTube
5. ‘Ordinary People’
Directed by Robert Redford, Ordinary People follows the story of the Jarretts, an upper-middle-class family in Chicago, as they try to regain some sense of normalcy after the accidental death of their eldest son, Buck (Scott Doebler), and the attempted suicide of their younger son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton).
The film, which was nominated for six Oscars, is a classic representation of the impact of loss, the fallout of trauma, and healing after a suicide attempt for the survivor and their family, says Wean.
“Conrad’s dad supports the idea of his son going to therapy while his mom — who has become cold and aloof following these events — is against it,” Wean explains. “You can watch the relationship between the two parents break apart over the course of the film.”
It illustrates the impact suicide has on the people left behind. “The movie is also a great answer to filmmakers who want to include a visual depiction of a suicide attempt in movies,” Wean adds, as it highlights the impact of suicide on suicide loss survivors rather than focusing attention on the act itself.
Ordinary People, Amazon Prime Video
6. ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’
Based on a novel by Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about a socially awkward teen named Charlie (Logan Lerman) who is journeying through high school.
Unlike many of his peers, Charlie has clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is coping with the suicide of his best friend, which happened a year prior. This film highlights the impacts of trauma, tragedy, and loss. It also tells the common story of a teen trying to fit in and find his place, among his peers and the world.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a film that portrays someone struggling with PTSD, having reoccurring memories and flashbacks from childhood traumas that were brought to light after a friend completed suicide,” Peña says. “This film shows how memories of trauma can be repressed and then resurface after a new traumatic event occurs.”
PTSD is less likely to be portrayed in a film, Peña adds. PTSD and anxiety were portrayed less often in films than addiction or mood disorders like depression, according to the aforementioned 2019 report.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Amazon.com
7. ‘About a Boy’
About a Boy stars Hugh Grant as Will Freeman, a wealthy and rather irresponsible 38-year-old man. It’s a nuanced “dramedy” — one that speaks to those who have lived with or care for someone living with a mental health condition.
Through a series of silly plot twists, Freeman ends up forging a bond with 12-year-old Marcus Brewer (Nicholas Hoult) whose mother, Fiona (Toni Collette), experiences clinical depression and survives a suicide attempt.
“It’s a comedy with obviously serious themes, and it will resonate for people who have cared for a parent with mental health struggles when they’re barely old enough to understand it,” Wean says. “It’s a powerful bit of representation, I think. Collette’s character, and her illness, are treated with sophistication and respect.”
It also shows how people around her banded together to provide care and support for her and her son, an important takeaway for viewers, Wean adds.
About a Boy, Amazon Prime Video