The best depictions of mental illness in movies and on television

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Mental health problems are often stigmatized and rarely accurately described in modern media; cinematic depictions of mental illness can be exaggerated and engulfed in stereotypes, making those of us who suffer feel horribly misrepresented. Nonetheless, in addition to the degrading and insensitive portrayals of mental illness, there are exceptions that approach the sensitive subject matter with maturity, consideration, and insight.

For members of an audience who are diagnosed with a mental illness, portrayal is a crucial component in achieving a sensitive understanding of the dire and lasting effects of living with a progressively worsening illness. Here are some respectable cinematic depictions of mental illness that capture the experience with precision and empathy.

Ratched (2020) – Dissociative Personality Disorder

ratchet is a thriller drama series premiered on Netflix in September 2020. Its premise follows Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson), a nurse who begins to infiltrate a leading mental hospital and bend operations to her will. Within Lucia State Hospital, many patients suffer from various mental health issues.

Sophie Okonedo portrays Charlotte Wells, a Lucia State patient with Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, diagnosed by maintaining at least two distinct personality states and relatively durable.

As ratchet progressing, Okonedo delivers a compelling performance of Complicated Behavior Disorder. Another compelling cinematic portrayal of this specific mental illness can be seen in To divide (2016), in which James McAvoy’s character Kevin Crumb retains 23 distinct personalities.

To the Bones (2017) – Anorexia nervosa

Premiered in 2017 on Netflix, To the bone tells the heartbreaking story of Ellen (Lily Collins), an unruly anorexic 20-year-old girl who spent most of her teenage years in various recovery programs. Determined to find a solution, her dysfunctional family agrees to send her to a group home for young people. Ellen must find out for herself how to attempt self-acceptance.

Ellen suffers from an eating disorder known as anorexia nervosa, in which you feel the urge to keep your weight as low as possible and you will achieve this by eating very little or missing meals. To the bone portrays an eating disorder with divine sensitivity, but never shies away from the hard-hitting moments that highlight the seriousness of mental illness and the devastation it can cause.

Jessica Jones (2015-2019) – Post-traumatic stress disorder

Another hit from Netflix, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, tells the story of Jessica Jones, a former superhero turned alcoholic private investigator. After an incident involving a mind-controlling psychopath known as Kilgrave (David Tennant) results in unintentional murder, Jessica begins to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, feeling anxious, and difficulty sleeping.

All along Jessica jones, its titular protagonist relives the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks and experiences feelings of isolation and irritability for inadvertently committing a crime. Jessica feels fully responsible, despite knowing that Kilgrave forced her to kill, which allows her PTSD to fester and riddle her with unbearable guilt. PTSD is a more common mental illness than is commonly believed, which is why Krysten Ritter’s cinematic portrayal of mental illness from the perspective of a long-term sufferer is imperative to raising awareness.

Joker (2019) – Antisocial Personality Disorder

Joker - cinematic depictions of mental illness

Joker was a commercial hit and a worldwide sensation when it was released in 2019. However, the public may be unaware that what lies beneath the Joker’s sadistic and murderous tendencies is much more than a desire to harm.

DC Comics’ most notorious villain suffers from a mental illness called Antisocial Personality Disorder, usually associated with psychopathic tendencies in a fictional setting. Joker is manipulative, deceptive, reckless and otherwise emotionless and lacks empathy or remorse. He lacks guilt, blames others for his behavior, and repeatedly breaks the law.

Joaquin Phoenix offers a believable portrayal of Antisocial Personality Disorder, especially since it manifests as an important character trait for The Joker and additional insight into his motivations. Joker even mentions the stigma of mental illness. Arthur Fleck writes a passage in his joke journal that says, “The worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to act like you don’t.

Donnie Darko (2001) – Schizophrenia

Donnie Darko - Cinematic Portrayals of Mental Illness

Located in October 1988, Donnie Darko follows its main character, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a troubled teenager who narrowly escapes a strange accident. He has visions of Frank, a mysterious character in a bunny costume, who informs him that the world will end in just over 28 days. Frank begins to manipulate Donnie into committing several crimes. Donnie Darko suffers from schizophrenia, which is a mental illness that causes someone to see, hear, or believe things that are not real.

Due to his confused thinking, Donnie blurs the lines of morality and begins to struggle to understand the difference between right and wrong. Frank uses illness against him, which is a real life example of how someone with mental illness can be abused.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – Bipolar Disorder

Silver Linings Playbook - Cinematic Portrayals of Mental Illness

Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy-drama that follows Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man with bipolar disorder. Pat leaves a psychiatric hospital and returns to live with his parents. He is determined to win back his ex-wife and rebuild his life. Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes extreme mood swings, typically ranging between mania and depression. They are described as episodes of extreme highs and lows.

Pat has periods of sleeplessness and paranoia, makes savage plans to win back his wife despite his injunction, and resists taking medication. He lets out his uncensored thoughts, flies into hair-triggered anger, and hallucinates when stressed. Very few cinematic representations of mental illness portray bipolar disorder, because although it is a more common condition, it still seems to be swept under the proverbial carpet. Silver Linings Playbook skillfully and accurately portrays bipolar disorder.

The Greatest Dad in the World (2009) – Depression

World's Greatest Dad - cinematic representations of mental illness

In The World’s Best Dad, Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is a high school teacher whose son accidentally commits suicide. Subsequently, Clayton writes a fake suicide note to escape the scandal, which is published in the school newspaper. Lance claims the literary fame he has always dreamed of and pursues the ploy by writing a diary. However, it becomes explicitly clear that whether her son committed suicide, intentionally or not, it is Lance who suffers from severe depression.

Depression is a moody mood that lasts for weeks or months and seriously affects daily life. Symptoms include feeling sad or hopeless, low self-esteem, and not finding pleasure in activities that you usually enjoy. Having lost his son, it is perfectly reasonable for Lance to sink into a deep depression and hide his sadness by lusting for the fame he so desperately desires.

Juno (2008) – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Juno - cinematic representations of mental illness

In 2008, the dramatic comedy, Juno, presented its audience with an accurate representation of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Its premise revolves around Juno, a social misfit, who protects herself with a caustic mind, but an unplanned pregnancy begins to radically change her life.

Juno MacGraff, the main character in this coming-of-age story from 2007, often acts or speaks without thinking – often with uncomfortable or even upsetting results. She has immense self-confidence – a challenge for many people with ADHD – but struggles to control her impulsive actions.

ADHD is a disease that includes symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. A person with ADHD will have a short attention span, constantly fidgety, and act without thinking. Elliot Page, who plays Juno, provides an essential cinematic portrayal of mental illness that would otherwise go unnoticed. Like bipolar disorder, ADHD is rarely mentioned or treated as much as it should be.

As mental illness continues to plague youth and adults, the media should take responsibility for portraying these disorders for those who suffer in silence without affording the luxury of telling others about their personal struggle. If we all made an effort to understand and accept mental illness, the world would be a better place.


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