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From Netflix’s constant releases to the never-ending TikTok feed, we live in an age of endless entertainment. While it may feel like a way for us to destress after a long day at work, what we watch does subtly influence our attitudes and beliefs about the world, including our views about mental health and individuals with mental illnesses.
Although reality may be exaggerated for the sake of ‘movie magic’, inaccuracies in how mental health and illness are depicted can perpetuate negative stereotypes about individuals suffering from mental disorders. We share 3 movies that do a poor job (despite being box office hits!) and 3 movies that do a great job at depicting mental health and mental illness.
3 movies that inaccurately depict mental health
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Based on the novel written by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic-comedy that’s received a number of awards. It follows Patrizio (played by Bradley Cooper) who’s just been released from a psychiatric hospital, where he had been receiving treatment for bipolar disorder. In an attempt to win his estranged wife back, he enters a dance competition with a young widow played by Jennifer Lawrence — you can probably guess where romance ends up blossoming.
While the movie has generally been quite well-received, it’s a simplistic depiction of how mental illness should be treated. For one, dance alone isn’t enough to treat bipolar disorder nor is a romantic relationship the answer to mental illness, as the movie seems to suggest.
Starring James McAvoy, Split follows a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID) after he kidnaps three teenage girls and imprisons them in a seemingly isolated location. The movie’s full of heart-thudding scares and bursts of violence, in typical M. Night Shyamalan fashion — and the plot is carried by the different identities that McAvoy’s character inhabits.
Despite being a commercial success, mental health practitioners have criticised its depiction of individuals with DID. Without giving away the ending, the twist of the movie depends on a very fictionalised trope of DID, that ends up demonising those who are living with the disorder. Simply for the sake of a thrilling ending, Split pushes the stereotype that individuals with mental disorders are violent and uncontrollable — which contributes to misunderstandings around people living with mental illness.
We all know who the Joker is, even without any introduction. Part of the wave of superhero movies that came out around that time, the 2019 movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix, told the Joker’s origin story and how the infamous villain came to be. Flashy, gory and stylistically shot, Joker can probably be found on many comic book geek’s lists of favourite movies.
The movie does a decent job at exploring the negative impact of environmental and societal factors (for example, growing up in an abusive household for the Joker) on an individual. However, the movie’s increasing escalation of violence ends up furthering the false stereotype that individuals with mental illness are dangerous and to be feared.
3 movies that accurately depict mental health
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
A dark comedy, Little Miss Sunshine revolves around a road trip that a family is taking, in order to help their youngest daughter compete in a child beauty pageant. Despite the fact that each family member seems to be plagued by their own personal problems, they’re all determined to help little Olive (played by Abigail Breslin) succeed.
Despite the cutesy premise of Little Miss Sunshine, the movie explores mental illness, such as depression and suicide, as some of the characters grapple with their mental health. Characters experience actual failure and have to visibly live with the consequences of their actions; but characters also band together to support each other through their difficulties, demonstrating the importance of social support in dealing with mental health issues, even whilst there are no easy answers.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age story of 17-year-old Charlie (played by Logan Lerman). The film opens with Charlie dealing with the loss of his best friend to suicide and follows him as he goes through his first year of high school, as he learns to come into his own and establish new relationships with the world around him.
Charlie’s trauma isn’t romanticised in the movie nor is it exaggerated for the audience’s sympathy. Rather, the movie portrays Charlie’s struggles and mental illness as-is; and shows how his mental health is just one aspect of his life, and how he learns to cope with his experiences. It provides a positive representation of how one may deal with their trauma and helps to eliminate the stigma that a person is only their mental illness.
Inside Out (2015)
While it may appear like a simple animated film at first glance, Inside Out definitely punches above its weight, in terms of its treatment of mental health. The movie delves into the head of 11-year-old Riley, who has to deal with the emotional turbulence of her family moving to another city and starting anew. Inside Out literally depicts the emotions warring inside of Riley, by personifying Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger – with Joy insisting, at first, that Sadness has no place. (We, of course, learn that all emotions – and learning to manage these emotions – are part of who we are by the end of the film.)
Inside Out has been praised by many mental health practitioners for its depiction of emotions and particularly, the validation of more stigmatised emotions like sadness and anger. The movie demonstrates what happens when we try to suppress certain emotions; and instead, advocates for balancing our emotions and allowing ourselves to feel what we need to feel, in order to come to terms with the situations we’re in. Although not a film about mental illness, Inside Out deserves a place on this list as it has many teachable moments about positive mental health practices. Additionally, it’s a good tool to get conversation started with younger children about productive ways to manage their emotions.
As you can see, accolades and raving reviews may not be the most reliable sources, when it comes to judging the accuracy of movies. This list certainly isn’t meant to detract from any of these movies’ accomplishments – rather, we hope that you’ll be more informed and aware, the next time any of these shows pop up on your screen.
Did any of these movies spark any questions about your own mental health? We’re here to help. Browse the full list of available therapists practising with A Space Between or let us know what you’re looking for and we’ll match you with someone best able to support you.
An experienced health & wellness writer, I am a story-teller at heart. For me, writing is a way of weaving together the little details that make our existence meaningful and significant into a beautiful, larger story.