Here are some of the best mental health movies you need to put in your queue or curl up with this weekend. After all, some of the most vivid and humanistic portrayals of the human mind are depicted in films that is, if the scripts get the details right. Too often, movies can stigmatize or distort mental health concerns, making characters with an issue seem different from everyone else. As a result, people who actually deal with these issues every day can end up feeling ostracized.
The truth is that everyone, young or old, is in some way affected by issues of mental health, whether you have a condition yourself or you have a friend, family member, or acquaintance with a condition. In this list you’ll find movies that discuss a range of health concerns — from high-functioning schizophrenia to the simple struggle to socially interact with one’s peers — but the way they are handled is careful, respectful, and entirely relatable.
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If you’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook, you know exactly why it has to make this list. The entire movie attempts to redefine what it means to have a mental illness, constantly playing on that stigmatizing term: “crazy.” What makes the movie engaging are the educated and seemingly “normal” main characters, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper), who suffer from an unnamed mental illness and bipolar disorder, respectively.
Though the movie faced some criticism for dramatizing mental illness, the Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Steven Schlozman, MD, told Vulture that he rather enjoyed the movie. “It’s Hollywood, so there are still going to be things that are there more for the story than for accuracy,” he said. “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.”
This movie brings in another question as to what “certifiably crazy” really means. Is checking yourself in to a women’s mental hospital instead of going to college considered crazy? How about chasing a bottle of Advil with a bottle of vodka — is that crazy? These are the questions Girl, Interrupted looks at through the character of Susanna (Winona Ryder), who suffers from borderline personality disorder (BPD). As she enters the mental hospital and meets young women who are both like her and completely unlike her, she begins to understand who she truly is.
The dark psychological thriller Black Swan is an enchanting portrayal of a warped and tortured mind. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) suffers from many issues because of the immense pressure she faces as a professional ballerina. Though she attempts to create the facade that she’s “okay,” the pressure leads to physical self-harm. Her obsession with physical perfection and self mutilation as a result of trying to obtain this results in her spiraling out of control. As we follow Nina’s downfall, we begin to understand how such over striving for perfection can harm a person’s mind causing extreme paranoia and one’s demise.
This humorous classic follows two brothers, Charlie (Tom Cruise) and Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) Babbitt, in an incredible journey of learning about disabilities. Charlie is autistic (an autistic savant, to be exact) who issues punchy lines and has an interesting take on life. During their time together, Charlie learns that Raymond has an incredible memory and genius math skills. Rain Man is an uplifting film that exhibits a great awareness of mental health, and is famous for bringing autism into the public eye.
The movie A Beautiful Mind was inspired by the true story of John Forbes Nash Jr. and the biography A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar. Though he is a bit of an outsider, the mathematician John Nash makes a quick claim to fame when he discovers a “game theory” that contradicts over a century of past economic theory. But as the government continues to vie for his attention, his paranoid schizophrenia (a mental illness during which someone loses touch with reality) begins to take complete control. It’s a powerful film about overcoming a progressive mental illness.
When a group of seemingly different high school kids are sentenced to detention on a Saturday afternoon, we immediately see the stereotypes: rebel, nerd, athlete, popular girl, and kook. But we soon learn that each of them deals with some form of pressure that compromises their mental health: John (Judd Nelson) comes from an abusive home, Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) tried to commit suicide with a flare gun, and the compulsion of Andrew (Emilio Estevez) to bully others comes from his father’s borderline emotional abuse. The Breakfast Club explores that space between those who appear to be “just fine” and those on the brink of collapse — something many people can relate to. If there’s anything to take away from the movie, it’s this line: “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”
Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a janitor at MIT, is a naturally bright young man who spends his spare time solving incredible puzzles that the other college students can’t seem to figure out. But Will comes from an abusive childhood, so although his mind is incredible, it is also quite troubled. Through regular meetings with a therapist (Robin Williams), Will is able to successfully battle his depression and build up his life. Good Will Hunting is a must-see if you’re looking for an uplifting, humorous classic.
Warning: This one’s a tear-jerker. Still Alice follows a linguistics professor (Julianne Moore) as she faces her diagnosis for early onset Alzheimer’s disease. As her memory fades and she struggles to keep her life in order, the heartbreaking film chronicles the efforts of the family members who stay by her side and the ones who can no longer watch her deteriorate.
The Aviator is a psychological biopic-drama that follows the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), a famous business mogul, movie director, and pilot whose life of frivolous spending and liaisons with Hollywood actresses is compromised as his obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) begins to take control. As his condition worsens and his life begins to plummet, we learn that his family has a history of OCD.
Similar to The Breakfast Club, Charlie Bartlett strives for the same mission that all movies surrounding mental health aim to achieve: to communicate the concept that mental health affects all of us. Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) has been given a wealth of opportunities, but growing up without a father has caused him to act out and become withdrawn. He also struggles with ADHD. When he moves to public school, he finds that he isn’t the only kid with deep-seated problems as others begin to confide in him about their issues with family, body image, sexuality, and more. Though the way he goes about helping them is unconventional (conning psychiatrists to get free drugs), the experience helps him find his true calling.
Another one I need to mention is a film called Birdy. Birdy is a 1984 American drama film based on William Wharton’s 1978 novel of the same name. Directed by Alan Parker, it stars Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage. The film focuses on the friendship between Birdy (Modine) and Al Columbato (Cage), two teenage boys living in a working-class neighborhood in 1960s Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The story is presented in flashbacks, with a frame narrative depicting Birdy and Al’s traumatic experiences upon serving in the Vietnam War and what happens when they return home.
It’s a strange and beautiful movie with two highly believable and wholly different characters who are incredibly difficult to put out of your mind even many years later.
Be sure to watch all of these films. They are lovely, thought provoking and inspiring and certain to touch a special place inside of you.
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