4 films that depict mental illness the right way

These films present the realities and nuances of mental health in careful detail.

by Portia Ladrido


The recent suicides of renowned personalities such as Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have left the majority of the world appalled. Their deaths are reminders that what we see on the surface — a seemingly perfect life — does not have anything to do with the reality of what people suffering from mental illness are dealing with inside of them.

While discourse on mental health and illnesses have improved in the last couple of years, recent events have again recommenced the conversation about depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses that need to perennially be discussed until the stigma is tramped down, and help and support can easily be accessed.

One of the ways in which these conversations can continue is when mental illnesses can be properly portrayed in popular culture. Films, music, plays and other forms of art are mirrors of society and once these platforms are able to display the truth about mental illnesses, we may be able to collectively understand its complexities, which could result in a more empathetic society.

Here, we list down some films that have shed light on mental illnesses in the most genuine way possible.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

This movie revolves around the life of mathematical savant John Forbes Nash, Jr. (played by Russel Crowe) who is living with schizophrenia. The movie, which is based on the life of Nash, who was known for his contributions to differential geometry, intricately captures the challenges and difficulties that he faced throughout his life. Through the film, viewers experience the depth of the hallucinations, making it one of the earlier films that helped negate prior movies that misrepresented the condition.

“Perhaps it is good to have a beautiful mind, but an even greater gift is to discover a beautiful heart.”

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

If there’s anything to take away from this film, it is that mental illness is not a deterrent to love. Following the story of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) who has bipolar disorder and Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), Silver Linings Playbook presents a well-rounded portrayal of bipolar disorder without romanticizing the condition. The plot also allows for the audience to relate to it, as it shows how people are struggling and coping in their own ways.

“You have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest, and if you do, you have a shot at a silver lining.”

Girl, Interrupted (1993)

The movie set in the mid-60s is based on the autobiographical novel by Susanna Kaysen, who wrote about her time in a mental institution. In the film, the many permutations of mental illness are presented: eating disorders, psychosis, and self-harm among others.

What’s distinctive also of the movie is that the protagonists are young women — a representation that is rarely made especially when women are mostly expected to lead “normal and decent” lives.

“I know what it’s like to want to die. How it hurts to smile. How you try to fit in but you can’t. How you hurt yourself on the outside to try to kill the thing on the inside.”

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

Gilbert Grape, played by Johnny Depp, is taking care of her clinically obese mother and his disabled young brother, Arnie Grape, played by Leonardo Dicaprio. This responsibility was passed onto him after his father hung himself in their basement.

The movie’s plot clearly shows not only the realities of mental illness but also the realities that the carers of those suffering from mental illness also have to face. What’s even more commendable in the film is that it didn’t portray Gilbert as a hero, but also as a flawed human being who is trying his best to reconcile who he is and who he is to his family.

“Gilbert Grape: Why will I take care of it?
Arnie Grape: Gilbert…
Gilbert Grape: Hmm?
Arnie Grape: ‘Cause you’re Gilbert.
Gilbert Grape: ‘Cause I’m Gilbert.”

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