mental health Stacey Nabutse

A Refreshing Take on Mental Health as Portrayed in Film & TV

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Not all movies and TV shows depicting mental health are depressing; many, in fact, are actually uplifting and refreshing. Here are eight films and two TV shows that count among the best of them — and can help you see yourself or loved ones in a different light.

Content Warning: Mental health, suicide attempts.

Movies With Fresh Mental Health Takes

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Rated R; Drama, Romance

Director: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck

 

A working-class math genius battling internally between his environment and his gift finds himself in the office of an unconventional therapist. Can he break through his child abuse trauma, inability to develop healthy relationships and attachment to an environment that leaves him stuck to fulfilling his potential?

Stream on FuboTV, HBO Max, DirecTV, Bravo, Spectrum On Demand.

 

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Rated R; Biography, Drama

Director: James Mangold

Starring: Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Clea DuVall

 

This film based on a true story follows a woman with undiagnosed borderline personality disorder during her year-and-a-half stay in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s after attempting suicide.

There, she befriends several fellow patients who help her confront her own inner demons. She must make the difficult decision between accepting the help she needs so she can face life in the outside world again or letting herself retreat into herself and succumb to her own mental illness.

▶ Stream on Netflix, Pluto TV.

 

Matchstick Men (2003)

Rated PG-13; Comedy, Crime, Drama

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell

 

This black comedy about a con man somehow happens to present one of the most realistic portrayals of obsessive-compulsive disorder in film. Rather than focusing on the illness itself, however, this film focuses on its impact on the people in the life of someone with the condition.

In fact, one of the things that makes this film so refreshing is how it doesn’t aggrandize a character’s mental health, but rather examines how much of a “normal” life they can live. Plus, it’s chock full of heartwarming relationships and hilarious cons.

▶ Stream on HBO Max, HBO, Max Go, DirecTV, Cinemax on Prime Video, Spectrum On Demand.

 

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Rated PG-13; Comedy, Drama, Romance

Director: Craig Gillespie

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider

 

There’s no particular mental health diagnosis or diagnoses associated with this film, at least not explicitly, but it’s easy to tell the titular main character in this bizarre yet touching and relatable comedy is struggling with his own mental health.

After a life with no mother and a distant father, a young man’s growth into mental maturity is stunted. Struggling with guilt, low self-esteem and interminable shyness, the young man eventually forms a delusional romantic relationship with an anatomically correct sex doll.

The reactions of his friends and neighbours and their attempts to figure out how to support him turn what could easily be a cynical satire into a heartfelt and truthful exploration of empathy and honest self-examination. Plus, the laughs are refreshingly healing in their own right.

▶ Stream on HBO Max, HBO, Max Go, DirecTV, Cinemax on Prime Video, Spectrum On Demand.

 

The Soloist (2009)

Rated PG-13; Biography, Drama, Music

Director: Joe Wright

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx

 

An unlikely friendship develops between a journalist and a homeless Juilliard-trained street musician in Los Angeles in this powerful and heartwarming film. This relationship creates a consuming inner struggle for the journalist who is faced with the choice to either try and fix the schizophrenic musical prodigy or accept him as he is.

▶ Stream on Prime Video, Paramount Plus, DirecTV, Epix, Spectrum On Demand.

 

It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)

Rated PG-13; Comedy, Drama, Romance

Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifinakis, Emma Roberts

 

What’s so refreshing about this story of a 16-year old with chronic depression — who checks himself into an adult mental institution after attempting suicide — is its raw honesty and stark realism.

Rather than succumbing to the Hollywood temptation to stereotype its characters and their struggles, this lighthearted film presents the people dealing with mental illness as real people with all the multi-faceted layers of humanity — including the ability to find humour in their situation and help others with mental health issues of their own.

 

▶ Stream on Apple TV, Vudu.

 

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Rated R; Comedy, Drama, Romance

Director: David O. Russell

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro

 

A former teacher leaves a mental institution to return home to live with his parents and reconcile with his ex-wife.

When he meets a woman suffering from mental health issues of her own, it threatens to ruin all his best-laid plans. But, can it be for the better?

According to many therapists, this film presents one of the most realistic and accurate portrayals of bipolar disorder.

 

▶ Stream on Netflix, History Vault.

 

The Anonymous People (2013)

Not Rated (NR); Documentary (psychology, education, social work, criminal justice)

Director: Greg D. Williams

Starring (as themselves): Tom Coderre, Tara Conner, Laurie Dhue

 

This hopeful documentary explores the 23.5 million people in America living in long-term drug and alcohol recovery centers. Aiming to shine the light of truth on a widely stigmatized reality that keeps many lives concealed in darkness, it reveals the true stories of people in 12-step programs and in-patient recovery centers through the voices of the volunteers, leaders, executives and celebrities who work with or on behalf of them.

▶ Stream on Kanopy.

 

TV Shows That Feature Unique Mental Health Portrayals

Bojack Horseman (2014-2020)

6 Seasons; Animation, Comedy, Drama

Director: Various

Starring (the voices of): Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, Aaron Paul

 

Ironically, this animated Netflix comedy set in a world populated by humanoid talking animals living alongside humans is widely reputed to present one of the most accurate, honest and revealing portrayals of a “person” dealing with chronic depression.

And, what more refreshing a way to explore depression than through a rip-roaringly ridiculous and irreverent cartoon? Oh, the plot? A washed-up former TV star navigates life in Hollywood post-fame and fortune. Let the laughs and learning ensue.

 

▶ Stream on Netflix.

 

Atypical (2017-2021)

4 seasons; Comedy, Drama

Director: Various

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Keir Gilchrist, Brigette Lundy-Paine

 

A teen on the autism spectrum decides to get a girlfriend. Go!

This high-concept series, also from Netflix, follows an endearing young man’s journey to find himself and seek independence in the face of his mental illness. The fumbling efforts of his loving family to support him add both realism and humour to this journey to personal empowerment.

▶ Stream on Netflix.

 

Stacey Nabutse
Author: Stacey Nabutse

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